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Our future, our universe, and other weighty topics

Tuesday, May 6, 2014

Road Maps to Future Immortality?

Maria Kkonovalenko recently created some cool visuals outlining three “road maps to immortality.” The first one is here, and depicts a path to immortality by genetic engineering. The second visual depicts a path to immortality by regenerative medicine. The third one is here, depicting a path to digital immortality.

The steps Maria has outlined are fascinating to ponder, but I think there are definite moral and practical difficulties we must ponder before getting too excited. First, let's look at Maria's path to immortality through regenerative medicine.

One thing Maria imagines is pigs serving as “bioreactors for growing human organs.” I have a moral issue with this proposal, which is quite similar to the moral issue I have regarding breeding pigs for slaughter. The problem is that pigs are highly intelligent and sociable animals. A scientist once made a crude video game with a large joystick cursor that an animal could manipulate with its snout. The scientist tested whether dogs or pigs could learn how to use the game. Even after many efforts, dogs were unable to learn the game, but pigs learned how to use it very quickly. So there is reason to believe that pigs are even more intelligent than dogs. Would it be moral for us to use pigs to grow some material that we would use in our body, for super-long lives? Possibly not.

Another thing Maria imagines is head transplants, and growing a new body in the lab. We can imagine the scenario: once you get to be 60, you start growing a new body in a big glass unit you keep in your basement. Then when you get to be 80, you arrange to have your head transplanted to the new body.

But there would be two big problems with this approach. The first is that while you would have a new body, you would still have the same old, aging brain. The result might look something like this:

body transplant

There would also be the moral difficulty involved in growing the second body. Since a body requires a brain to function, how could you grow a replacement body without that body having its own mind and personality? If the body did have such a mind and personality, it would presumably be murder for you to have surgeons decapitate that body and replace its head with your head. Perhaps the replacement body could be set up so that it didn't have any mind. But the idea of having a mindless replacement body growing for 20 years in a lab or your basement is creepy, like the story of Frankenstein.

None of these messy biological and moral difficulties are associated with Maria's third road map to immortality, her vision of digital immortality. But I don't think the scenario she imagines is very plausible. She basically imagines that we will learn more and more about how consciousness works, by scanning and analyzing brain tissue. She imagines us concentrating on animals first, first figuring out exactly how the brain of a smaller animal works, then figuring out how the brain of a larger animal works, and then finally figuring out exactly how the human brain stores memories and produces thoughts. Then once we understand that, according to this vision, we can create computers or robots that duplicate this functionality, and upload our minds into such electronic units.

There are several problems with such a scenario. The main one is that the production of human consciousness by the brain is one of the great mysteries of nature, and there is little hope that we will be able to solve it through brain scanning. No matter how closely we examine a neuron or brain tissue with a scanning device, it seems unlikely we will ever be able to say, “Aha, there is a thought being produced,” or “I see it now; there is a memory being stored.” So brain-scanning offers little hope that we will be able to understand the brain and consciousness enough to perfectly reproduce it electronically. There is also the whole duplication problem discussed here.

We should not necessarily be depressed if digital immortality is not possible. The situation can be expressed through the flow chart shown below. The question is: is the origin of spiritual human consciousness from mere physical matter a kind of “miracle of consciousness” that can never be understood in terms of mere physics, chemistry, and biology – perhaps something that can only be understood through some more transcendent principles? If the answer to that question is “no,” then there is perhaps some hope that some of us may be able to achieve some kind of digital immortality by uploading our minds into machines. But if the answer to this question is “yes,” then there is a distinct possibility that such transcendent principles may open the door to some kind of spiritual immortality. I don't find this latter possibility to be any less hopeful than the first.