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Digital Subscriptions > Skeptic > 21.2 > Virtual Immortality

Virtual Immortality

Why the Mind-Body Problem is Still a Problem

VIRTUAL IMMORTALITY IS THE THEORY THAT THE fullness of our mental selves can be uploaded with first-person perfection to non-biological media, so that when our mortal bodies die our mental selves will live on. I am all for virtual immortality and I hope it happens (rather soon, too). Alas, I don’t think it will (not soon, anyway). I’d deem it virtually impossible for centuries, if not millennia. Worse, virtual immortality could wind up being absolutely impossible, forbidden even in principle.

This is not the received wisdom of optimotechno-futurists, who believe that the exponential development of technology in general, and of artificial intelligence (AI) in particular (including the complete digital duplication of human brains in the near or mid term), will radically transform humanity through two revolutions. The first is the “singularity,” when AI will redesign itself recursively and progressively, such that it will become vastly more powerful than human intelligence (superstrong AI). The second, they claim, will be virtual immortality.

AI singularity and virtual immortality would mark a startling, transhuman world that optimotechno-futurists envision as inevitable in the long run and perhaps just over the horizon in the short run. They do not question whether their vision can be actualized; they only debate when will it occur, with estimates ranging from 10 to 100 years.

I’m skeptical. I think the complexity of the science is vastly underrated, and I challenge the philosophical foundation of the claim. Consciousness is the elephant in the room, though many refuse to see it. They assume, almost as an article of faith, that superstrong AI (post-singularity) will inevitably be conscious (almost ipso facto). They may be correct, but to make that judgment requires an analysis that is surely multifaceted and, I suspect, likely inconclusive.

Whatever consciousness may be, it determines whether virtual immortality is even possible. So I focus here on consciousness. First, however, there are two other potential obstacles to virtual immortality. I consider them briefly.

One is sheer complexity. What would it take to duplicate the human brain such that our first-per son inner awareness, and all that it entails, could not be distinguished from the original?

Consider some (very) rough data for the human brain: it contains about 85 billion neurons (specialized nerve cells that convey electrical information); 100 to 1000 trillion synapses (small space between neurons, the junction across which information is transmitted by neurochemicals); one to five trillion glial cells (traditionally assumed limited to metabolic support for neurons, now suspected as also participating in brain functions); up to 1000 moments per second for positioning action potentials (the electrical spark of information in neurons); ten billion proteins per neuron (some of which form memories); innumerable 3-dimensional structural forms for proteins and their geometric interactions; various extracellular molecules (some of which may be involved in brain functions). The list goes on.

How much of all of this complexity is required for total virtual duplication such that the mental fullness of the original person can be said to exist? Who knows?

Granted, not all of the brain is needed for consciousness and its contents, and much of the machinery is metabolic. The bodily control mechanisms, such as regulating breathing and heart rate and digestion, will not be needed in non-biological substrates. On the other hand, contemporary philosophy of mind suggests that bodily sense is needed for normal cognition (i.e., “embodied brain” and “extended mind”).

Take all the brain data together and consider all possible combinations and permutations that work to generate the more than 100 billion distinct human personalities who have ever lived (each of whom differs from moment to moment). I hesitate even to estimate the number of specifications that would be required. How could all these be accessed non-invasively, in sufficient detail, in real time, and simultaneously? The technologies exceed my imagination. But in principle, they are possible.

A second potential deterrent to virtual immortality is quantum mechanics, the inherent indeterminacies of which could make creating a perfect mental duplicate problematic or even impossible. After all, if quantum events (like radioactive decays) are in principle non-predictable, how then would it be possible to duplicate a brain perfectly?

But quantum indeterminacies exist everywhere, in bricks just as well as in brains, so its special applicability to brain function and hence to virtual immortality is questionable. The crux of the issue is at which level in the hierarchy of causation, if any, does quantum mechanics make meaningful contributions to brain function and to consciousness? Certainly the vast majority of neuroscientists think quantum mechanics works only at bedrock levels of fundamental physics, way too low to play any special role at the higher levels where brains work and minds happen.

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UPLOADING YOUR BRAIN SPECIAL ISSUE: Uploading the Mind to a Computer Mind Uploading: An Argument for the Scientific and Technical Plausibility of Preserving Thoughts Indefinitely by Kenneth Hayworth; Uploading Your Mind Does Not Compute by Peter Kassan; Virtual Immortality: Why the Mind-Body Problem is Still a Problem by Robert Lawrence Kuhn SPECIAL SECTION: What Motivates Extremists? Once Upon a Time: Re-Thinking the Fight Against Extremists by Tina Dupuy; Dealing With Islamism: Trust, Costly Signaling and Forming Moral Teams by Peter Boghossian and James A. Lindsay; Apocalypse Soon?: How Emerging Technologies, Population Growth, and Global Warming Will Fuel Apocalyptic Terrorism in the Future by Phil Torres ARTICLES Paleoanthropology Wars: The Discovery of Homo naledi has Generated Considerable Controversy in this Scientific Discipline by Nathan H. Lents; Charlie Sheen’s HIV Goat Milk Doctor by Harriet Hall, M.D.; Massachusetts: Mass Hysteria Cover Up by Robert E. Bartholomew; Agony and Ecstasy: Were Saint Paul’s Christian Beliefs a Symptom of Epileptic Personality Disorder? by Harry White; In Defense of Anti-Science: Why the Anti-anti-science Movement Has Gone too Far by J. Howard Siegal; The Decline of Intelligent Design: The 10th Anniversary of the Dover Decision and the Demise of Intelligent Design by Donald Prothero COLUMNS The SkepDoc: Flu Shots Facts and Fallacies by Harriet Hall, M.D.;The Gadfly: How Accurate is the “Cycle of Abuse”? by Carol Tavris REVIEW “Sacred Cows: A Lighthearted Look at Belief and Tradition Around the World” by Seth Andrews reviewed by Donald Prothero JUNIOR SKEPTIC: Man-Eating Plants: The Cannibal Tree of Madagascar by Daniel Loxton.
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