I recently co-founded a group called the DC Future Salon that meets once a month in Bethesda, Maryland, to discuss futurist issues (if you live near DC and want to join, join the dcfuture group on yahoogroups). This week our salon meeting focused on the notion of immortality. After a nice lecture and movie showing by Immortality Institute founder (and DC Future Salon co-organizer) Bruce Klein, the discussion traveled through various topics, including the viability of cryonics and the politics of discussing immortality among nontranshumanists – and finally, moved on to more philosophical issues, such as the reasons why immortality is desirable. One of the key issues that came up here is the extent to which the individual self, the personal identity – the thing most transhumanists want most to preserve via immortality, much more so than our physical bodies – is actually a real thing worth preserving. Preserving the physical body is, like uploading, just one means to preserving the self. But what is this “self” that’s so valuable to persist throughout time?
There is a lot of neuropsychological research showing that the “self” is in a strong sense an illusion – much like its sister illusion, “free will.” Thomas Metzinger’s recent book Being No One makes this point in an excellently detailed way. The human mind’s image of itself – what Metzinger calls the “phenomenal self” – is in fact a construct that the human mind creates in order to better understand and control itself, it’s not a “real thing.” Various neuropsychological disorders may lead to bizarre dysfunctions in self-image and self-understanding. And there are valid reasons to speculate that a superhuman mind – be it an AI or a human with tremendously augmented intelligence – might not possess this same illusion. Rather than needing to construct for itself a story of a unified “self entity” controlling it, a more intelligent and introspective mind might simply perceive itself as the largely heterogenous collection of patterns and subsystems that it is. In this sense, individuality might not survive the transcendence of minds beyond the human condition.
The key philosophical point here is: What is the goal of immortality? Or, to put it more precisely: What is the goal of avoiding involuntary death? Is it to keep human life as we know it around forever? That is a valid and non-idiotic goal. Or is it to keep the process of growth alive and flourishing beyond the scope painfully and arbitrarily imposed on it by the end of the human life?
Human life as it exists now is not a constant, it's an ongoing growth process; and for those who want it to be, human life beyond the current maximum lifespan and beyond the traditional scope of humanity will still be a process of growth, change and learning. Fear of death will largely be replaced by more interesting issues like the merit of individuality in its various forms -- and other issues we can't come close to foreseeing yet.
It may be that, when we live long enough and become smart enough, what we find out is that maintaining individuality unto eternity isn't interesting, and it's better to merge into a larger posthuman intelligent dynamical-pattern-system. Or it may be that what we find out is that individuality still seems interesting forever, since there are so many resources available at the posthuman stage, and diversity still seems like an interesting value (plenty of room for both humans and transhuman intelligent dynamical pattern systems!).
The quest for radical life extension is largely about staying around to find out about things like this!
And there is, of course, a familiar and acute irony in observing that -- while these (along with the scientific puzzles of human biology, uploading and so forth) are the interesting issues regarding immortality -- the public discourse on immortality will be focusing on much less fascinating aspects for quite some time to come: aspects like whether living forever is a violation of the will of the divine superbeing who created us all 6000 years ago....