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.
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.
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.
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.
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:
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.
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.
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
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.