Imagine you are offered a trustworthy opportunity for immortality in which your mind (perhaps also your body) will persist eternally. Let’s further stipulate that the offer includes perpetual youthful health and the ability to upgrade to any cognitive and physical technologies that become available in the future. There is one more stipulation: You could never decide later to die. Would you take it? Metaphysician and former British diplomat Stephen Cave thinks accepting such an offer would be a bad idea.
Cave’s fascinating new book, Immortality, posits that civilization is a major side effect of humanity's attempts to live forever. He argues that our sophisticated minds inexorably recognize that, like all other living things, we will one day die. Simultaneously, Cave asserts, “The one thing that these minds cannot imagine is that very state of nonexistence; it is literally inconceivable. Death therefore presents itself as both inevitable and impossible. This is what I will call the Mortality Paradox, and its resolution is what gives shape to the immortality narratives, and therefore to civilization.”
Cave identifies four immortality narratives that drive civilizations over time which he calls; (1) Staying Alive, (2) Resurrection, (3) Soul, and (4) Legacy. Cave gracefully marches through his four immortality narratives citing examples from history, psychology, and religion up to the modern day. “At its core, a civilization is a collection of life extension technologies: agriculture to ensure food in steady supply, clothing to stave off cold, architecture to provide shelter and safety, better weapons for hunting and defense, and medicine to combat injury and disease,” he writes.
In the Staying Alive narrative Cave opens with the quest of the First Emperor of China to find the elixir of life but lands us soon the 21st century where transhumanists aim to use modern science to finally achieve the goal of perpetual youthful life. He notes that in the last century, humans have in fact doubled average human life expectancy.
Why not simply repair the damage caused by aging, thus defeating physical death? This is the goal of transhumanists like theoretical biogerontologist Aubrey de Grey who has devised the Strategies for Engineered Negligible Senescence (SENS) program. SENS technologies would include genetic interventions to rejuvenate cells, stem cell transplants to replace aged organs and tissues, and nano-machines to patrol our bodies to prevent infections and kill nascent cancers. Ultimately, Cave cannot argue that these life-extension technologies will not work for individuals but suggests that they would produce problems like overpopulation and environmental collapse that would eventually subvert them. He also cites calculations done by a demographer that assuming aging and disease is defeated by biomedical technology accidents would still do in would-be immortals. The average life expectancy of medical immortals would be 5,775 years. Frankly, I will be happy to take that.
Resurrection is his next immortality narrative. Of course, the most prevalent resurrection story is that of Jesus of Nazareth 2,000 years ago. The New Testament explicitly states that one day every individual will once again live in his or her real but improved physical bodies. Physical resurrection is also the orthodox belief of the other two Abrahamic religions, Judaism and Islam. Thus, Cave notes, half of the world’s population officially believes in the future resurrection of their physical bodies. He adds, however, that many Christians, Jews, and Muslims actually subscribe to another immortality narrative, Soul.
Cave identifies three major problems with the Resurrection Narrative: the Cannibal problem, the Transformation problem, and the Duplication problem. Briefly, if resurrection is to mean anything, it must mean that a specific individual is brought back to life. The question is what happens when atoms have been shared by more than one person: Who gets to use the specific nitrogen and carbon atoms when everyone is brought back to life? I don’t think that that is much of problem since atoms are interchangeable and presumably God could simply put any random carbon and nitrogen atoms back in the same places they were in your physical body. They needn’t be the exact same atoms that you had when you died.
The Transformation problem is harder. Many believers would have died old, decrepit, and demented. That’s not how they believe they will be resurrected; they expect to get better, incorruptible bodies. By being thus transformed would the resurrected believer really be the same person who had died or a different person? And then there is the problem of duplication. God could not just reassemble a believer as she was when she died, he could also reassemble her as a 5-year-old girl. Cave argues that these three problems calls into question the notion that it would truly be a specific individual believer rising from the grave.
Besides these ancient resurrection dogmas, modern technophilic thinkers have devised a couple more: cryonics and mind uploading. Cryonicists aim to avoid the three ancient resurrection problems by having their bodies frozen at minus 276 degrees Fahrenheit in liquid nitrogen with idea that future technologies will be able to revive them. Cryonicists believe that reviving individual brains with their unique patterns and history would be the way to guarantee that specific individuals are actually brought back to life.
Cave notes that this focus on preserving a person’s mind leads other modern would-be computational resurrectionists to argue for uploading minds (information encoded in an individual’s brain) onto another piece of hardware, an electronic avatar, a robot, or another brain which would be psychologically identical to the original mind. Cave argues that computational resurrection does not actually achieve immortality for a specific individual, but merely makes an exact psychological copy of him. There is the additional problem that if minds can be digitized they can be duplicated many times. If this occurs who then is the original resurrectee? “When you closed your eyes on your deathbed, you could not expect to open them again in silicon form,” he explains. The result of mind uploading “would all just be high-tech ways of producing a counterfeit you.”
Counterfeit? Counterfeit means to make a copy with the intention to deceive or defraud. I doubt that people who decide to take advantage of mind uploading would be defrauded or deceived. Even if digital duplicates were made of the same individual’s mind, I suspect that they would have no problem with that—the more versions of their specific memories, desires, and psychology the merrier.
Cave does not address one other popular version of how computational immortality might occur. As the 21st century advances our bodies and minds will be increasingly integrated with digital appliances of various sorts, e.g., more and more of our memories and reasoning abilities could be located on silicon (or whatever quantum computations devices come later) and accessed via radio. Eventually more and more of the information that makes up an individual’s mind will have migrated into these digital devices. When the biological portion of an individual’s techno-complex eventually dies it may be regretted but the event will not significantly disrupt the continuity of the individual’s self-consciousness.
The most popular immortality narrative is Soul. Most Christians now believe that their souls, which persist after death, will be reunited with their resurrected bodies. Souls thus solve a lot of the identity problems associated with the earlier Resurrection narrative. Cave argues that Soul narrative resolves the Mortality Paradox by denying “that the failing body is the true self, identifying the person instead with exactly that mental life that seems so inextinguishable.” In Christianity all souls are equal before God, so if the omnipotent and omniscient Creator of the universe is interested in your life then who are your politicians to ignore your desires?
What about the afterlife? Cave cites American evangelist James L. Garlow who says that in Heaven “your every desire is satisfied more abundantly than you’ve ever dreamed.” But what if your desire is to be reunited with your wife who instead desires to spend her eternity with her childhood sweetheart? A more sophisticated theocentric view of the soul’s afterlife is that Heaven is the eternal exaltation of God. But what can this mean? Cave points out that an afterlife without time is not really a life at all. “Everything that makes up a human life—experience, learning, growth, communication, even singing hosannas—requires the passage of time. Without time, nothing can happen; it is a state of stasis, a cessation of thought and action,” he argues. “The attraction of the soul view was the unique aura it gave to every individual life, but its logical conclusion is an eternity of nothing, with life negated altogether.”
The major Eastern religions, Hinduism and Buddhism, also subscribe to versions of the Soul narrative involving cycles of reincarnation. Cave points out though that both religions’ accounts of souls are pared down to being some kind of vague continuum of awareness. After death your individual experiences, memories, hopes, desires are all forgotten as your soul moves from one body to the next. Cave is correct when he asserts, “If you have a soul, yet it does not take your mind, personality, or consciousness with it, then its survival after the death of your body should be of as much interest to you as the survival of your toenails.”