Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Sagan, Haldane, eternal life, and Data

An intriguing passage from an excellent chapter from an excellent book, The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark by Carl Sagan:

A very different prospect for something like eternal life was once proposed by the versatile British scientist J.B.S. Haldane, who was, among many other things, one of the founders of population genetics. Haldane imagined a far future when the stars have darkened and space is mainly filled with a cold, thin gas. Nevertheless, if we wait long enough statistical fluctuations in the density of this gas will occur. Over immense periods of time the fluctuations will be sufficient to reconstitute a Universe something like our own. If the Universe is infinitely old, there will be an infinite number of such reconstitutions, Haldane pointed out.

So in an infinitely old universe with an infinite number of appearances of galaxies, stars, planets, and life, an identical Earth must reappear on which you and all your loved ones will be reunited. I'll be able to see my parents again and introduce them to the grandchildren they never knew. And all this will happen not once, but an infinite number of times.

Somehow, though, this does not quite offer the consolations of religion. If none of us is to have any recollection of what happened this time around, the time the reader and I are sharing, the satisfactions of bodily resurrection, in my ears at least, ring hollow.

But in this reflection I have underestimated what infinity means. In Haldane's picture, there will he universes, indeed an infinite number of them, in which our brains will have full recollection of many previous rounds. Satisfaction is at hand -- tempered, though, by the thought of all those other universes which will also come into existence (again, not once but an infinite number of times) with tragedies and horrors vastly outstripping anything I've experienced this turn.

The Consolation of Haldane depends, though, on what kind of universe we live in, and maybe on such arcana as whether there's enough matter to eventually reverse the expansion of the universe, and the character of vacuum fluctuations. Those with a deep longing for life after death might, it seems, devote themselves to cosmology, quantum gravity, elementary particle physics, and transfinite arithmetic.

Growing up, I was taught – not very forcefully – that Heaven was real (not so much for Hell). Ever the inquisitive child, I often wondered what Heaven would be like, and that would always result in an unsolvable loop of trying to imagine an existence wonderful enough that it wouldn’t become a perfect Hell when the constraint of “forever” was added. I would ponder and think and ponder and think: "But...forever”. I was always able to push it to the back of my mind via “my earthly brain is not equipped to comprehend forever”; but it was there, in the back of my mind: I didn’t really want to live forever.

Sagan makes two important points regarding the “Consolation of Haldane”: first, that it requires that the universe not continue expanding unto its own heat death; second, and less interesting from a scientific perspective but more interesting from a philosophical perspective, that as a hope for life after death and the reincarnation of our consciousness, it also precipitates the conclusion that our full-memoried selves will both prosper and suffer immensely in an infinite number of future universes. Definitely food for thought.

But what about looking at the continuation of consciousness question from a different angle – that of future technology?

In the TV series Dollhouse, a large bio-tech corporation has a super secret wing that recruits minor criminals and offers them a contract to be “dolls” for five years in return for having their legal slate wiped clean at the end of their service. The dolls’ memories and – well, their entire psychological make-ups – are mapped and transposed into digital “imprints” that can be stored on hard drives, and then erased. They exist as child-like “dolls” with no memories or behavioral traits until they are needed for missions, whereupon appropriate imprints are mapped into their brains, transforming them into the desired person.

Neglecting the possible extinction of the human species, and given enough time, I see something like this as entirely plausible. 100 years? 500? 1000? 5,000? I almost don’t see how it could not happen.

If such a capability came to exist before we had medically solved the “problem” of aging, how would we view ourselves? How would we view our deaths? If it was relatively cheap to incubate doll clones of our bodies and store imprints of our brains every night before (or during) sleep, then dying would become quite a different phenomenon. In some ways, it would be very similar to going to sleep.

Consider: If you were on your deathbed, but you knew the moment you died, someone would press a button and imprint a perfect mapping of your brain into a healthy biological clone of yourself, would you be able to think of it as just going to sleep, or would you still think of it as dying? I think I, and most people, would struggle to feel like it was the former. But if our brain is truly “us”, then isn’t that a particularly religious perspective? From a pure thought experiment viewpoint, ignoring technological feasibility and assuming the possibility of perfect transference, shouldn’t I, as a person who doesn’t believe in a soul of any kind and who grants sentience and consciousness to a character like Data in Star Trek (giving no special pedestal to human consciousness), have no problem with transferring my consciousness into another body? Or, say, into an android’s body?

I think this is why "The Measure of a Man" is one of my all-time favorite ST:TNG episodes.

What do you think?