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?


  1. (Sorry it's been a while! I've been kinda busy!)

    On the other end of the spectrum: If I had complete faith in the fact that when I died, my consciousness would be carried over to a clone but in fact it never did, dying would be just like falling asleep.

    Maybe I feel more certain about my impending demise, but I'm rather okay with the idea that my consciousness is a miraculous phenomenon, yes, but nothing un-ordinary. It is a human condition to value our species' consciousness over that of others. We consider the existence of other animals to be so dispensable that we'll gladly enslave them, use their meat, or step on them. Do we look at roadkill and question the existence of the armadillo's spirit?
    We can be deeply atheistic yet still have difficulty with accepting our mortality. On the other hand, though, are all the ants I've stepped on being reincarnated? As someone who doesn't believe in an afterlife, I'd say no quite easily (unless "afterlife" is referring to the Consolation of Haldane).
    To be frank, I find one of the main hypocrisies in most religions to be the singling out of our particular brand of primate to be worthy of afterlife, or needing to work for it. From this perspective, a Native American religous viewpoint might be less self-contradicting than most major religions of today.

    This being said, how would humans regard clones or androids? I have a strong feeling that a human consciousness that was passed on to an android's body would be considered a second class citizen or less. For instance: Maybe it isn't the snapshot of a human's brain that represents its consciousness, but also the way in which it is constantly changing?
    If a human consciousness was placed into a machine, would the machine's programming dictate the way in which the brain changes over time instead of something more...human?

    Suppose yes. Suppose this wasn't an android but now a human clone; there seems to be something more "right" about it. This is a person, and would be accepted in society.

    However, before the transfer of consciousness, what's the difference between the hunk of synthetics that is the android, or the hunk of flesh that is the clone?

    There seems to be something primal which deems non-humans as lesser. In order for a file-transfer of consciousness into an android, I'd think human-kind would have to outgrow this.

    In conclusion, I feel as though the idea of human immortality is a desperate and even narcissistic attempt to come to terms with something we are cursed with the capacity to think about: our death.

    (Sorry if this post comes off a bit grim; I've quit drinking so much and it's getting to me :p )

  2. Oh yes! And the glory of being pointless lifeforms in a pointless universe is that we are free to make sacred anything we desire. Spirituality is accessible by any means we chose, however we define it, and self-attained fulfillment is our heaven; attainable during life in the tiny chunks of time during which the laughter is bubbling up in our throat, or the tears are welling up in our eyes.