Tag Archives: immortality

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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Resurrection & Immortality in the Flesh

When I first heard of Ray Kuzweil’s ideas, I assumed he was a science fiction writer. After all, the sort of transhuman future he envisioned is stock sci-fi fare. I was mildly surprised when it turns out that he is quite serious about (and well paid for expressing) his views. I was somewhat more surprised to learn that he has quite a following. Of course, I wasn’t too surprised-I’ve been around a while.

Oversimplifying things, Kuzweil envisions a future in which humans will be immortal and the dead will return to live. While these are common claims in religion, Kuzweil’s view is that technology will make this possible. While some describe his view as a religion, I’d prefer to use a made up word, “techion” to refer to this sort of phenomena. As I see it, a religion involves claims about supernatural entities. Kuzweil’s view is purely non-supernatural, but does have most of the stock elements of religion (the promise of a utopian future, immortality, and the raising of the dead). So, it is sort of a technological religion-hence “techion.” Yes, I like making up words. Try it yourself-it is free, fun and makes you look cool (your actual results might differ).

While the religion-like aspects of his views are interesting, I’ll be looking at the ideas of technological immortality and technological resurrection.

In the abstract, technological immortality is quite simple: just keep repairing and replacing parts.  In theory, this could be kept up until the end of time, thus granting immortality. Even with our current technology we can repair and replace parts. For example, my quadriceps tendon was recently repaired. I have friends with artificial hips and other friends who gotten tissue and organ transplants. It is easy to imagine technology progressing enough to replace or repair everything.

Technological resurrection is a bit trickier. While we can “jump start” people who have died, Kuzweil envisions something more radical. His view is that we might be able to take the DNA of dead people and rebuild them using nanobots. This, he claims, could create a new body that would be  “indistinguishable from the original person.” Of course, having a body that is indistinguishable form the original is hardly the same as having the original person back. It would, rather, be a case of having a twin. To recreate the person, his plan is that information about the original (such as things the person wrote and recollections of people who knew them) would be used to recreate the mind of the original.

Nanobot reconstruction from DNA seems possible. After all, each of our bodies assembled itself using DNA, so we have a natural model for that process. The challenge is, of course, to duplicate it with technology. We also know that the brain accepts external information that shapes the person, so such a “download” would (in theory) be possible. Of course, there is a big difference between the normal experiences that shape us and downloading information in an attempt to recreate a person.

One aspect of both immortality and resurrection that is of philosophical interest is the matter of personal identity. Immortality is only immortality if I keep on going as me. Replacing me with something that is like me does not give me personal immortality. Resurrection is only true resurrection if it is me who has returned from the dead. Recreating my body from my DNA and telling him stories about me does not bring me back to life.

Turning to immortality, the key question is this: would the identity of the person be preserved through the changes? Personal identity does seem to survive through fairly robust changes. For example, I’m confident that at 43 I am the same person as the very young kid who staggered down the aisle of church saying “I’m drunk” after drinking the communion wine. I’m larger now and a bit wiser, but surely still the same person. However, the changes required for technological immortality would be quite radical. After all, eventually the brain tissue will fail and thus will need to be replaced-perhaps by machinery.

This problem is, of course, like the classic ship of Theseus problem: how much of the original can be replaced before it is no longer the same entity? Of course, it is also complicated by the fact that a person is involved and the identity of persons is a bit more complex than that of objects.

Fortunately, there is an easy answer. If whatever it is that makes a person the person she is can keep on going in the increasingly strange flesh, then such immortality is possible. If not, then it would not be immortality, but a strange sort of death and succession. Since I don’t know what it is that makes a person the person she is, I lack a definite answer to this question. I am sure that it is quite a shock that no definite answer has been reached.

Of course, this does not diminish the importance of the concern. Assessing whether we should take the path that Kurzweil desires involves deciding whether this sort of immortality is real immortality or not. That is, determining whether we would go on as the same people or whether we would simply be dying a strange and prolonged death as we are being replaced.

Now, for resurrection. This matter has long been of interest to philosophers. Plato wrote about reincarnation (the difference is that resurrection is supposed to restore the same person and the same body while re-incarnation is supposed to restore the same person with a different body) and Locke explicitly wrote about resurrection. Naturally, philosophers who were also religious thinkers tended to write about this subject.

True resurrection, as noted above, has two key aspects. First, the original body has to be recreated. If you get a different sort of body, then you have been reincarnated (perhaps as a rather miffed squirrel). Second, the original person has to be restored. Locke’s view on this matter is that come judgment day, God will recreate our bodies (hopefully at their prime) and place the right consciousness into each body (for Locke, the person is his or her consciousness).

Recreating the original body seems possible. With DNA, raw material  and those hypothetical nanobots, it would just be a (re) construction project. It would also help to have images of the original body, plus as much other relevant data as possible. So, the first aspect is taken care of.

Getting the original person back in the recreated body is the real challenge. Kurzweil does seem to clearly recognize that the method he envisions will not restore the original person. He seems to be right about this. After all, the method he describes relies on “public” information. That is, it depends on what information the person provided before death and what other people remember of him. This obviously leaves out everything that was not recorded or known by others. As such, it will be a partial reconstruction-a new person who is force fed the scraps of another person’s life. This, obviously enough, raises some serious moral issues.

On the face of it, Kurzweil’s resurrection seems to be moral appalling. That this is so can be illustrated by the following analogy. Imagine that Sally and Ivan have a son, Ted. Ted dies at 18. Sally and Ivan go through all the adoption agencies until they find a baby, Joe,  that looks like Ted did. They rename Joe as Ted and then reconstruct Ted’s life as closely as possible-punishing the former Joe whenever he deviates from Ted’s life and rewarding him for doing what Ted did. Sally and Ivan would be robbing Joe of choice and using him as a means to an end-fulfilling their need to have Ted back. But, they have no right to do this to Joe-he is a person, not a thing to be used to recreate Ted.

The same certainly seems to hold in the situation Kurzweil envisions. To create a human being and force him to be a copy of a dead person is a horrible misuse of a person and a wicked act.

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