Immortality: Duplicating Consciousness Edition

There’s a literature in analytic philosophy on the metaphysics of identity relevant to the following question: What happens when you manage to completely duplicate the information comprising a human’s brain and body? 

Centrally, the question interrogated in that particular literature pertains to whether some particular entity, such as a given man or woman, is or is not the same thing after some change(s) of some sort—i.e., after a certain temporal duration or some other kind of physical alteration, and so forth. For my purposes here, however, that isn’t quite what I’m asking. Rather, my question is specifically about one’s stream of consciousness and what might happen if we were able to effect a duplication of it. I’ll refine the question some more after a few more preliminary remarks.  

At root, I want to briefly pursue what to my mind is the most plausible position on this question and use it to view a particular idea that gets raised in chatter about the so-called ‘singularity’ in futurologist circles (and elsewhere). The idea that I want to examine is the one that alleges that immortality is in principle possible, because it is in principle possible to duplicate the information that underlies one’s consciousness. Indeed, according to many futurologists, our civilization—or one of its offshoots, in whatever form it takes—will likely if not inevitably develop the scientific and technological know-how to perform such immortality-making—that is, to duplicate consciousnesses and hence allow for immortality.

The philosopher Nick Bostrom gives a brief outline of the basic components to ‘uploading’ one’s identity here:

So, if all the information comprising an individual were suddenly duplicated perfectly in some physical medium that could completely capture their dynamical informational pattern, what would happen to their stream of consciousness?

Would it also duplicate into a second, (instantly) diverging stream? And if so, does that mean that all streams of consciousness have a unique subjectivity that is intrinsically connected to the unique spatiotemporal patterns and unique matter and energy that actually instantiate those streams of conscious subjectivity? If so, then seemingly all instantiations of subjectivity are unique existences—unique ‘points of view‘ (to borrow Thomas Nagel’s concept) that cannot be duplicated. True, a perfect duplication of all of the information that physically instantiates a given person’s consciousness would be a perfect duplication of virtually everything about them, such as their memories, personality dispositions, and even their phenomenology. Yet, it seems as if the duplicated consciousness’ ‘point of view’—which is a feature seemingly inherent to conscious experience in general—would not feel as if it was continuous with the stream of consciousness from which it was duplicated. On this view, in other words, if your consciousness was perfectly duplicated in some other physical entity, such as in a cyborg of some sort, then although the cyborg might in virtually every way be virtually identical to ‘you’, its conscious experience would not feel as if it was continuous with ‘yours’.

The foregoing take seems to suggest the following upshot: That the complete preservation of psychological continuity is not sufficient to sustain the same unitary conscious subjectivity—the very same ‘point of view’ of one’s particular conscious experience. Hence, the above view seems to suggest that the particular physical pattern spatiotemporally instantiating the information subserving one’s consciously-experienced subjectivity is necessary and sufficient to sustain the feeling of being the same unitary consciousness over time.

It also seems to be complemented by the view that the integrity of a specific kind of functional organization seems to be the necessary and sufficient condition for instantiating the living substrate upon which conscious subjectivity crucially depends, with the corollary being that a certain amount of entropy can define the threshold at which that functional organization can no longer sustain the life processes of an agent, and, ergo, its consciousness (for when life-sustaining processes cease, so too is consciousness likewise extinguished). This point about entropy’s relation to life-sustaining processes seems to underscore the emphasis on the particular physical pattern that ultimately subserves the particular point-of-view of conscious experience that feels like it persists as one and the same point-of-view over time. Accordingly, it emphasizes that, insofar as one wants to sustain the feeling of being the same conscious subjectivity over time, then one must focus directly on the exact dynamics of the spatiotemporal trajectory of the matter and energy that constitutes that particular conscious subjectivity.

If our analysis is correct, it seems to put the kibosh on one day successfully uploading or copying one’s consciousness and living forever, in the sense that one’s consciousness would feel like it was persisting as the exact same conscious subjectivity, only now as the uploaded information pattern. And, I suspect, this is the critical feature that most people would care most deeply about so far as the prospect of duplicating consciousness and identity is concerned.

The view I’ve been putting forth is at loggerheads with the scenario depicted in the film Transcendence (featured in the clip at the outset of this essay), where Johnny Depp’s character, Dr. Will Caster, is seemingly the same unitary subjective consciousness after being informationally uploaded as he was prior to it while still ‘in’ his physical body. Stanisław Lem’s science fiction novel Solaris, on the other hand, seems to come close if not converge upon the view that duplication is not tantamount to feeling as if one is the same subjectivity as the entity from which one was duplicated from. In this scene from Steven Soderbergh’s 2002 film version of the novel, Rheya (played by Natascha McElhone) is created as a physical clone of the deceased Rheya by the mysterious Solaris planet and asserts that although she has various memories (of her deceased incarnation), she has no feeling of ever “being there” and “experiencing those things”. This, I think, is very similar to the idea of not being the same subjective, conscious point of view after duplication as before duplication—that is to say, both instances, both before and after duplication, are entirely distinct streams of consciousness, two entirely distinct points of view. (Relevant time slice: 30:40 – 37:20.)


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