Information Immortality

Most people are familiar with the notion that energy cannot be destroyed. Interestingly, there is also a rule in quantum mechanics that forbids the destruction of information. This principle, called unitarity, is often illustrated by the example of burning a book: though the book is burned, the information still remain—

although it would obviously be much harder to “read” a burned book. This principle has, in recent years, run into some trouble with black holes and they might or might not be able to destroy information. My interest here is not with this specific dispute, but rather with the question of whether or not the indestructibility of information has any implications for immortality.

On the face of it, the indestructibility of information seems rather similar to the conservation of energy. Long ago, when I was an undergraduate, I first heard the argument that because of the conservation of energy, personal immortality must be real (or at least possible). The basic line of reasoning was that a person is energy, energy cannot be destroyed, so a person will exist forever. While this has considerable appeal, the problem is obvious: while energy is conserved, it certainly need not be preserved in the same form. That is, even if a person is composed of energy it does not follow that the energy remains the same person (or even a person). David Hume was rather clear about the problem—an indestructible or immortal substance (or energy) does not entail the immortality of a person. When discussing the possibility of immortality, he claims that nature uses substance like clay: shaping it into various forms, then reshaping the matter into new forms so that the same matter can successively make up the bodies of living creatures.  By analogy, an immaterial substance could successively make up the minds of living creatures—the substance would not be created or destroyed, it would merely change form. However, the person would cease to be.

Prior to Hume, John Locke also noted the same sort of problem: even if, for example, you had the same soul (or energy) as Nestor, you would not be the same person as Nestor any more than you would be the same person as Nestor if, in an amazing coincidence, your body contained at this instant all the atoms that composed Nestor at a specific instant in time.

Hume and Locke certainly seem to be right about this—the indestructibility of the stuff that makes up a person (be it body or soul) does not entail the immortality of the person. If a person is eaten by a bear, the matter and energy that composed him will continue to exist—but the person did not survive being eaten by the bear. If there is a soul, the mere continuance of the soul would also not seem to suffice for the person to continue to exist as the same person (although this can obviously be argued). What would be needed would be the persistence of what makes up the person. This is usually taken to be something other than just stuff, be that stuff matter, energy, or ectoplasm. So, the conservation of energy does not seem to entail personal immortality—but the conservation of information might (or might not).

Put a bit crudely, Locke took this something other to be memory: personal identity extends backwards as far as the memory extends. Since people clearly forget things, Locke did accept the possibility of memory loss. Being consistent in this matter, he accepted that the permanent loss of memory would result in a corresponding failure of identity. Crudely put, if a person truly did not and could never remember doing something, then she was not the person who did it.

While there are many problems with the memory account of personal identity, it certainly suggests a path to quantum immortality through the conservation of information. One approach would be to argue that since information is conserved, the person is conserved even after the death and dissolution of the body. Just like the burned book whose information still exists, the person’s information would still exist.

One obvious reply to this is that a person is an active being and not just a collection of information. To use a rather rough analogy, a person could be seen as being like a computer program—to be is to be running. Or, to use a more artistic analogy, like a play: while the script would persist after the final curtain, the play itself is over. As such, while the person’s information would be conserved, the person would cease to be. This sort of “quantum immortality” is remarkably similar to Spinoza’s view of immortality. While he denied personal immortality, he claimed that “the human mind cannot be absolutely destroyed with the body, but something of it remains which is eternal.” Spinoza, of course, seemed to believe that this should comfort people. Perhaps some comfort should be taken in the fact that one’s information will be conserved (barring an unfortunate encounter with a black hole).

However, people would probably be more comforted by a reason to believe in an afterlife. Fortunately, the conservation of information does provide at least a shot at an afterlife. If information is conserved and all there is to a person can be conserved as information, then a person could presumably be reconstructed after his death. For example, imagine a person, Laz, who died by an accident and was buried. The remains could, in theory, be dug up and the information about the body could be recovered (to a point prior to death, of course). The body could, with suitably advanced technology, be reconstructed. The reconstructed brain could, in theory, have all the memories and such recovered and restored as well. This would be a technological resurrection in the flesh and the person would certainly seem to live again. Assuming that every piece of information was preserved, recovered and restored in the flesh it would be the person—just as if a moment had passed rather than, say, a thousand years. This would be, obviously, in theory. Actual resurrection technology would presumably involve various flaws and limitations. But, the idea seems sound enough.

One potential problem is an old one for philosophers—if a person could be reconstructed from such information, she could also be duplicated from such information. To use the obvious analogy, this would be like 3D printing from a data file, except what would be printed would be a person. Or, to use another analogy, it would be like reconstructing an old computer and reloading all the software. There would certainly not be any reason to wait until the person died, unless there was some sort of copyright or patent held by the person on herself that expired a certain time after her death.

In closing, I leave you with this: some day in the far future, you might find that you (or someone like you) have just been reprinted. In 3D, of course.

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  1. Intriguing article. Very thought provoking.
    I was confused when you mentioned Nestor. Who is this person?
    My email didn’t have an introduction to this person.

  2. Let’s imagine this another way. You have two computer programmers; Lazarus, just about the most awful programmer in the world. And Joshua, a nearly divinely inspired technological genius. both do not wish to die. They believe they can immortalise themselves through technology.

    Lazarus’ attempt is the most simple. A loop with a ‘who am I’ function. The function returns a statement hardcoded in memory, that states, ‘You are Lazarus. Once you had a human form which perished, but now you are immortalised through electronic technology’. The loop can run for eternity, or until someone pulls the plug. It is switched on at the moment of Lazarus’ death.

    Joshua’s attempt is a little better. He’s gone as far as creating a mechanical avatar; which looks and sounds just like the old Joshua. But for this avatar to believe it is Joshua, and not some mechanical toy, it too needs a ‘who am I’ function.

    Is either attempt, immortality.

    And if you examine Lazarus and Joshua’s thinking, you might come to the strange thought that humans are in fact mass produced mechanisms, who believe they are people. If there was another person in the world, with your memories and personality, and an imbedded delusional belief that they are you. Would they in fact be you, or would they be some kind of horrifying doppelganger, that is not you.

  3. There is much in the way of quantum mechanics which does not function in accord with our human perception concerning what we regard as reality. I can accept that information in the quantum world cannot be destroyed, although I do not know how to prove this. However, if I were to destroy a Bible I can accept that the information is still available in other Bibles and in the memory of many people. However, if the Earth were impacted by a massive celestial body surely all the information that ever was would be massively corrupted and no longer accessible, I am assuming that this event is not in the nature of what might happen were the Earth to encounter a black hole. I’m wondering if in the world of quantum mechanics ‘information’ is not identical with, how humans understand the word and use it. I understand how matter can be destroyed or transmuted into energy, but information is for me, something that humans conjure with and has no existence outside of the human brain. Were we to destroy the whole of the human race where would the information be. You might say in books so let us destroy those as well. Does information in spite all still exist, if so where and how?

  4. “Nestor of Gerenia (Ancient Greek: Νέστωρ Γερήνιος, Nestōr Gerēnios) was the son of Neleus and Chloris and the King of Pylos. He became king after Heracles killed Neleus and all of Nestor’s siblings.”

  5. JMRC,

    The first one reminds me of programming in basic:

    10 Print “I am Lazarus”
    20 Goto 10

    This would obviously not result in personal immortality. 🙂

    In your example, a key concern is just what you mean by a ‘who I am’ function-that is, what does it involve? Is it a Print and Goto sort of deal, or some very sophisticated coding?

    You do raise an excellent question: if there is something running about a thousand years hence that claims to be me, is it me or is it just some crazy deluded thing that thinks it is me?

  6. It is a question of where information comes from in the first place. Humans access or discover it but do not create it. It may exist in the electromagnetic field and if so could be indestructible. Similarly if blueprints exist in the electromagnetic field disintegration of the physical form would not be the end of the blueprint. A generic blueprint would not suffice however; individuality, mind and motion would have to be elementary. They would have to survive the disintegration of the material body either in a subtle energy or causal body or in a combination of both. If the soul exists it would also require that individuality be elementary, otherwise it could not survive as a separate entity from the cosmos.

    It all depends on the macrocosm; if, as in previous times the human was perceived as a microcosm of the macrocosm then human attributes would be expected to match those of the macrocosm. Currently the macrocosm is not perceived to have individuality,
    mind, or motion, at least not motion that preceded relativity.
    For that to change the nature of space would have to be better understood. If nothing in space is endemic to it, then where does everything come from? If inner space had the attributes of the microcosmic brain (which are individuality, mind, and motion) then the macrocosm and microcosm would be in sync. It would not be necessary to worry about information ever being lost or creativity having a limit.

  7. Doris Wrench Eisler

    The definition of “information” in quantum mechanics can’t be identical with the information in books, and information in books is not necessarily consonant with fact or truth: it would include opinions, errors, spoofs, lies, etc.. Information as surviving the destruction or extreme transformation of books must mean the content of books existing in the minds of readers, writers or transferred to machines. Because the intellectual content of books is of a different order of reality from the matter of which books, the vehicles, are made. Unless we’re talking airy-fairy – not that there’s anything wrong with that.
    Reconstructing human beings from their transformed matter/energy sounds like something I heard once from a fundamentalist Christian. It could happen, in the sense that almost anything could – for all we know.
    In what is a manner of speaking, we say a person is not the same person he/she was earlier, and we could mean a whole lot of different things. We might be referring to the fact we all change
    (grow older, wiser, stupider, richer, in mood etc.) and in that sense we change from minute to minute. Or we might be referring to the fact that every cell in our bodies is replaced every 7 years. And if memory failure is complete or almost so, we may not know who we are, yet know we are somebody.This has actually happened and such a person still has likes and dislikes, ambitions and emotions, and curiosity about his/her past life.
    Even people in so-called vegetative states have been found to have been aware during comas, and remember experiences after recovery. And you don’t address the neighbour of a seriously senile person but attempt instinctively to communicate in some way with the person him/herself – at least some of the time. Even if only by touch. That is, if you are a functioning human being yourself.
    There are entities whose every cell is identical to the cells in other entities, as in clones, but their individual experiences are unique – an action directed at one doesn’t cause a reaction in the others.
    Reconstruction/reassembly of the material components of an individual, were it possible, doesn’t mean reconstruction of the same individual, unless by definition, and that is airy-fairy. So, reprinted in 3D you might have many clones, each of which would think, act, experience independently of you.
    But just as subatomic particles seem to be in two places or everywhere at the same time, it is possible in theory that in some universe with different laws an individual mind could inhabit numerous bodies all acting as one. The individual and some-of-the-time conscious receiver and processor of stimuli, you and I, might survive death as ourselves, but we shouldn’t count on it too much.

  8. I see information as nothing more than transient states of a dynamic material universe. Information has no existence as a ‘thing’ or ‘stuff’ in its own right. Our human understanding of information, and in a larger scale, knowledge, is all about patterns in brains corresponding to other patterns outside the brain. In isolation such information is quite meaningless, and only takes on meaning for us because we are complex enough to build a long term contextual framework that recognises patterns that are the same or similar enough to ones that we’ve experienced before – they trigger ‘recognition’, that flood of brain activity that comes to life when something is recognised. Take a line drawing of a car. Anyone familiar with cars will have their brain triggered when the see this. Anyone with zero experience of cars or technology generally, some remote people first discovered would find the lines meaningless – there would be no information content for them.

    More detail:

  9. Mike LaBossiere,

    “In your example, a key concern is just what you mean by a ‘who I am’ function-that is, what does it involve? Is it a Print and Goto sort of deal, or some very sophisticated coding?”

    What are the bare essentially needed for the ‘Who am I’ function – which also confirms on query that you are a being and you do exist. A good place to start is Rene Descartes’ existence theorem; which goes cogito ergo sum. I think, or I know, therefore I exist. So if we think of the core essence of human being as thought and memory – once we fulfil these two essential functions, you could say we’re home and dry on the path to immortality.

    In the recent Krauss-Chomsky conversation (It’s on Youtube – and very well worth watching), Chomsky talks a little on artificial intelligence and the whole subject of immortality through technology. Chomsky cites Turing’s paper on thinking machines (a famous paper, I have not read..yet). What Turing has to say for the question of do computers actually think, is do submarines swim. If you can say what a submarine does is swim, then it swims – if you don’t want to say that you don’t have to. If you can say what a computer does is think, then it thinks.

    So does our very basic basic computer program satisfy Descartes’ conditions for existence. We can definitely say the computer has memories, as the program itself is stored in its’ memory. If you want to call how the computer processes its’ memories thinking, then it thinks. Lazarus lives…..but it’s not much of a life. Joshua is brighter than Lazarus, the same problem has crossed his mind. Adding complexity doesn’t solve the problem, it mystifies it. Joshua’s clone, given better faculties than Lazarus’ will at some point realise that they are not in fact Joshua, but a separate being Joshua has created, and the statement in memory that states they are Joshua is like a lot of human and computer thoughts and beliefs; erroneous. The immortal Joshua clone, will some time, sooner or later, come to the realisation that their ‘who am I’ function is a misconception, thank their dead father, and go on to have fulfilling eternal life.

    The Cartesian Cogito is a very clever self-proving axiom. A being can prove its’ own existence, simply by asking itself if it exists. Or simply stating it exists.

    “You do raise an excellent question: if there is something running about a thousand years hence that claims to be me, is it me or is it just some crazy deluded thing that thinks it is me?”

    Here’s a better one, or one nearly as good. Imagine you have a friend who is a technological genius, who is centuries ahead of everyone else, but keeps most of their work secret for fear of misuse that would have disastrous consequences. You visit her house. You’d like a coffee, and she tells you there’s a combination cloner coffee maker kitchen clock, in the kitchen, and to help yourself. You enter the kitchen, and see the wonderful machine, with its’ fantastic selection of coffee’s and hot teas, and a big red button, clearly labelled ‘do not touch under any circumstances’ – you do what has been confirmed in countless trials of engineers and scientists, who have clearly labelled equipment that they wish lay people not to touch, with please do not touch signs, and you press the big red button. And then….nothing happens….until your friend the scientist enters the kitchen and in a low hoarse whisper of shock and barely suppressed rage asks “Oh my God…..what have you done?”………This is slightly sarcastic, as she knows full well what you’ve done. But you don’t……until you turn and see yourself staring back at you with equal horror.

    How do you even begin to solve this problem. Which is you, which is the clone. Can you simply murder one of you. Or it’s not that simple, as in that case you may be murdering another person, because they’re inconvenient. Do you just accept the mess you’ve created and take the other you home with you – but neither of you can seem to agree on who the other you is. And you’re not even quite sure you’re you, anymore.

    The scenario sounds far fetched, but any questions or answers its’ examination generates have genuine real world value. There are many people who believe they come readily equipped with personal cloning machines. They, and their children, often become burdens on themselves, society and the mental health services as result of this belief.

  10. Is information nothing more than a human construct? If this be the case, then prior to the evolution of human beings information had no existence. I know what we mean by a day to day explanation of information that is to say, its common usage. Is there something more subtle, so far as information is concerned, something which makes it indestructible, that has up to now evaded my understanding? Are we to take it that whatever constitutes reality, has the ability to remember in some way, how to get back to any prior state from which it has evolved?

  11. JMRC,

    If the ‘Who am I’ is as robust as a Cartesian self, then I would certainly accept that it is a person. But, there would still be the question of whether or not it would be me. Normally I rely on continuity of memory to establish continuity of personhood. But, allowing for copied memories wrecks that. I always know I am I, but I do not know if I am the same person who had the experiences that caused the memories I think I have.

    Fortunately, years of gaming have trained me on how to handle duplicates. If it is created by a Mirror of Opposition style process, the duplicate will attack me and will vanish after the battle (win or lose). Problem solved.

    If it is some sort of almost perfect tech duplicate without homicidal tendencies, then it would have my personality and values. So, we’d team up and alternate the chores and job responsibilities until one of us decided to have a change of career. We’d need to also work out all those fiddly legal things, like a new social security number, driver’s license, and so on. Naturally, I’d also have to ask my girlfriend if she wanted to be duplicated as well. If not, we’d have to decide what to do about that-perhaps a coin toss as the only fair means of resolution.

  12. Don Bird,

    While the quantum folks like to use the example of a book, the general idea of information would include stuff that we did not create. One example would be the coding in our DNA. Of course, information would presumably include anything that could be quantified (even if we never do so). So, perhaps, every location one of my cells has occupied would be part of the information about that cell.

  13. Don Bird,

    “I can accept that information in the quantum world cannot be destroyed, although I do not know how to prove this.”

    The term information in modern physics comes from combining some known principles from classical physics. If you do a basic chemistry course, you learn the principle of the conservation of mass. Up to the 20th century it was thought that mass could neither be created or destroyed. And the conservation of energy was a separate principle. In the 20th century, where Einstein comes up with the mass/energy equivalence. The conservation of information is a handy catchall.

    But to say the universe is made of information, what does that mean. Richard Feynman was cagey on answering certain questions, because certain definitions and interpretations lead to conflict within physics itself; hence “shut up and calculate” He wanted philosophers to study physics, so they could take the brunt of the conflict over what the interpretation actually means.

    We think of the what we imagine the real world to be is a composition of real physical material. And abstract ideas to have a non-physicality. Information we understand more commonly as having a non-physical nature. If you want to be consistent in modern physics as to what all the mass/energy and stuff is made of, then the answer, the problematic and “a little bit too much even for many physicists” answer, is that it’s made of the abstract information we long believed to have no physicality. Though if you say this to some working physicists, they’ll get very upset (trust me).

  14. It seems then that information is always there. The problem is in accessing and reading it correctly. This being the case, Einstein achieved it when he arrived at the equation E=MC^2. Perhaps more simply, it was the case before anybody discovered it.
    So it does seem that information is, outside of black holes, eternal.

  15. Kevin Henderson

    Another example of information is the organization of every atom in a cup of tea. Take a snap shot and now try to reproduce it. We have no idea how to do this. Now take a snap shot and try to predict where all of the atoms (>10^23) will be in one second. We have not have knowledge about how to make that prediction.

    Recently physicists asked: Why can’t we remember the future? ( In the linked PRL paper (paywall) you will find explanations on reversible (and irreversible) thermodynamics. It is likely information can not be recovered in the way that we would like; that may not mean the same thing as conservation of energy and information. I think of like the capacity to store information remains constant, but the content of that information can change, and very likely irreversibly.

  16. Kevin Henderson,

    ” It is likely information can not be recovered in the way that we would like; that may not mean the same thing as conservation of energy and information. I think of like the capacity to store information remains constant, but the content of that information can change, and very likely irreversibly.”

    What can be said about information, or energy, or real material objects that we are familiar with, remaining consistent with quantum theory, is that we can never tell where something actually is, the most we can say is that it is somewhere in the universe. A cup of tea. We can tell the tea is in the cup, but really there is a probability of the tea being anywhere in the universe. We don’t see this with cups of tea, but we see it with lots of other things.

    If you’ve ever wondered how radio waves, which are made of photons, get through your wall, it’s not as simple as there being a low probability of the photon hitting something in the wall. There is a low probability of the photon ever having been in the wall. Which doesn’t really make sense, but in another sense it was in your wall and in a vast number of different places before it reached your radio. And you could say this information was spread out across space.

    The “information wars”, not really a dispute but something that had the theoretical physicists going for a while, was black hole theory. The problem went, if something fell into a black hole, there was no way of it getting out. And this would mean our whole universe would disappear down the plug hole. This doesn’t happen, as we notice, or wouldn’t be here to notice. Instead, that little bit of information that is you, that has fallen into a black hole, as we speak, is falling at near the speed of light, but will never land. (If it did land, you’d be in trouble. We would all be in trouble.)

  17. I find a magnon to illustrate the conservation of information very well. One can say information is often conserved even in the classic world by they are disipated all over due to the second law of thermodynamics. A quantum energy system appears as a thermodynamic like system albeit with a somehow violation of the second law. As such the qm equations are said to be time riversable. Indead, the so called ‘collapse of wavefunction’ can be seen as irreversable transfere of information from quantum world to classic world.

  18. I usually do not leave a response, however after
    reading a few of the remarks here Information Immortality | Talking Philosophy.
    I do have some questions for you if it’s okay. Is it just me or
    do a few of the responses appear as if they are coming from brain dead people?
    😛 And, if you are posting on additional online sites, I
    would like to follow you. Would you list of every one of all your
    public pages like your Facebook page, twitter feed, or linkedin profile?

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