Wednesday, September 5, 2007

Dreams Come True

Humans have always dreamt of an afterlife. It's something we had to create, if only in our minds, once we made the conscious realization that try as we might to survive we would inevitably one day die. This must have come as a terrible shock to our ancestors in deep prehistory (for it was surely many hundreds of thousands of years ago that the realization was made); centuries, even millennia might have passed between the realization of death and the invention of an afterlife, and the interim must have been a melancholy period indeed. One can only imagine the neuroses that plagued the period during that time.

Belief in an afterlife is one of the only memes that nearly every religion seems to share. It doesn't need to be an endlessly delightful heaven: reincarnation, ancestor spirits, the empty gray afterworld of the Greeks, or even the endless torment of hell are all preferable to simple nothingness. Dreams of something after the grave are universal in our species.

It's in the human character, though, that we try to make our dreams real. Whether we're dreaming of breakfast or bridges, we make our dreams manifest, if we dream them long enough, and hard enough, and enough of us share it. There are a lot of us now, and we've been dreaming of an afterlife for a long time. You might say it's become the survival imperative apotheosized at the species level. With a dream that big, at some point the universe has to give.

That point will come soon.

Our dreams become more sophisticated with time. Once we dreamed of crossing small streams, and we cut down some trees; now, we dream of connecting islands to continents, and lay down strips of steel and concrete. Our dreams of an afterlife have grown the same way, accreting complexity as our numbers swelled and our records grew longer. Tales told around the campfire became towering religions, though remaining fantasies for all that. Fantasies are are still all we have, but for the first time those fantasies are starting to resemble technical blueprints rather than stories. We're learning what makes us us, deep inside our brains: neuroscience is mapping it in every relevant detail, cognitive science is figuring out how the parts all fit together, and information science is starting to put together working models.

Before many more decades are out, we'll be able to lift a persons soul out of their mind and put it in a computer. In all likelihood people won't even have to die first; some distant successor of an MRI might be able to read a person's soul in a matter of minutes, at which point you can either use it to back yourself up (in case of death, regrow a body and imprint the soul on it), or animate it, inhabiting either a simulation or a robot body (or another you, if you have extra bodies kicking around.) It's the latter options that I find really interesting; a backup is useful if all you want is immortality, but being able to inhabit multiple bodies simultaneously, now that has some interesting applications. Imagine being able to run a million you's in parallel, having a million times the experience you could have on your own (a million at least; that's assuming the sims aren't running much faster than you). Having bodies distributed around the world would lend people some interesting new capabilities as well, especially as robots - unlike people - are well-suited to survival beyond the Earth's biosphere. A person would live a life of ease at the center of a network of millions of their own personalities, spread through microchips and robots, that do all of their work for them.

You might question what need the network would have of that crusty old lump of meat sitting at its center, directing it's actions. Certainly there's no need for a template; once the first copy has been made, copies of that copy can be made with near-perfect fidelity a near infinite number of times (in practice, every copy could be so copied.) David Brin's idea in Kiln People - a novel that explores the nature of a world where people live in parallel - was to give the dittoes a maximum lifespan of days, and to make ditto-to-ditto copying impossible. In practice I don't see that as a likely technical limitation, although you never know. Still, I like to think humans as such would be kept around over the long run, if only as ornaments, much the same way many countries retain their politically non-functional monarchs.

In the world I see, that is exactly the place I see humanity as occupying. Every man a king of a country of himself, his soul become an eternal thing that survives beyond any one body, for it occupies many.

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gregory said...

my two rupees worth... the sense of a life beyond death exists because we know that we are eternal... that which knows this is the self, which is unborn, never dies .... addiction to the mind is why we forget this underlying fact, pointed out instead of in... the soul can not be romoved from the mind, because the mind is in the soul, not the other way around... the body too... these ideas are central to advaita vedanta, non-dual awareness...nice blog.. good subject matter, thanks

Keitousama said...

glad you like the blog, gregory.

i guess you could say that what i'm talking about here is giving the mind the same sort of eternal continuity of existence the soul has, growing throughout eternity into something far greater from that which it started.

it's basically the old idea of gradual uploading. extend the body by connecting it directly to machines, and the body, the mind, and one might assume the soul, in effect grow out into those machines.

you really hit the nail on the head with the identity between self and soul. though i'm not so sure a self exists in the objective sense; it could well be just a very ancient meme (according to Susan Blackmore, a pioneer in theoretical memetics and a committed Buddhist). of course a meme exists insofar as any information exists ... and personally, i make an identity between information and the soul, the soul being whatever amount of information is required to most compactly describe an entity (human or otherwise).