Interesting story about a scientist who wants to become immortal by preserving the neural network in his brain so that hundreds of years later, it can be uploaded to a machine. Most scientists think he’s a crockpot. I think he’s misguided, but not for scientific reasons, but philosophic ones, as I don’t think he’s thought through issues of personal identity enough.

Minor boast: I got an A+ in a Philosophy class at Stanford – I think it’s one of my proudest accomplishments because it’s in a domain so far removed from what I’m best at. (Minor non-boast: I got an F in a Computer Science at Stanford too, in the concentration I focused on (AI).) And the paper that put me over the top was on personal identity, which isn’t to say that I’m an expert in it, just that I find it really interesting. And I’ve written about it before, so I won’t go over it again. But the thing is, in philosophy (at least 15 years ago), it’s commonly accepted that the mind is just an encoded algorithm. It happens to be encoded via neurons, but there’s no reason why it couldn’t theoretically be equivalently encoded in silicon, as a machine. So the idea that a mind could theoretically be uploaded to a machine wouldn’t be laughed at in philosophy at all. It’s the mainstream view.

Two things are more interesting though. One is the issue of consciousness. Because how you get from an algorithm to consciousness is not at all clear. It doesn’t make logical sense that the algorithm itself is conscious. What makes the most sense is that the running of the algorithm is the cause of consciousness. So if you ran a “mind” program, it’s conscious; as long as you pause it, it’s not conscious. Same with an actual mind – if the neurons of the brain work, there is consciousness; if the running pauses, there is no consciousness. And that led to one of my favorite ideas in philosophy. Because an algorithm can be encoded in neurons, it can be encoded in silicon, but it can also be encoded in paper. That is, you can explicitly write down the instructions of an algorithm on paper. It might be a huge book, but it’s theoretically possible. And if that’s an algorithm, when someone “runs” it, e.g. by reading through that book, while it’s being read, there’s consciousness in the book. Wild.

Anyway, what that mind-uploaded scientist guy gets wrong is that he doesn’t think about what it means to be the same “person”, and that’s where his quest for immortality is flawed. Because if his mind gets uploaded to a machine, he’s not the same person – he’s a copy of a different person with the same memories. Because he’s severed continuity, and continuity is the key to identity. Meaning, the substance of our bodies is supposedly completely new every 7 years as cells die and are formed via the food we eat, but just because we’re physically completely different “stuff” than 7 years ago, we’re the same body because there’s a continuity of substance. Same with the mind – we’re the same person because of continuity of memory. Sever that – like if a person suffers radical amnesia – and intuitively we think of them as a different “person”. So continuity is everything.

And because uploading a mind doesn’t maintain continuity, it wouldn’t be making that same “person” immortal; it would be making a copy of that person immortal. Otherwise you’d run into logical impossibilities if you, for example, made a copy of that mind and uploaded it to two different machines. They’re now separate “persons”. You can’t really say one is the real one and one is fake. The truth is, they’re both new persons, copies of one that came before, but neither is the same person as the previous one. So that mind uploader guy may make someone immortal, but it won’t be him”self”.

Didn’t love The Prestige but I loved this idea in the movie (spoilers). There’s a line in the end where he says how hard the trick is, knowing that he will die every single time. It’s kind of an odd line, because “he” doesn’t die. At least, the one who survives isn’t the one who experiences death, so it’s kind of confusing that that he would think about it that way. And yet, he really does die; in my philosophical opinion, the real person dies every night, since he has physical continuity with the person that came before. The one who lives is a copy of the prior.

Doubt anyone understood this. Doubt even more than anyone cared.

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