Tuesday, April 07, 2015

What we talk about when we talk about...

... something we don't really know anything about.

But I don't mean something we can know anything about.  Well, I don't mean something we....well, let me just explain.

In an article at Salon, in a pretty lame discussion of evolution, there was discussion about the possibility of "uploading" human "consciousness" into machines.  It's a wonderfully trashy idea, akin to "freezing" a terminally ill patient until the cure for their disease can be found.  It's trashy for a very simple reason:  no one ever talks about uploading the "soul" or the "heart."

Why not?

In fact, the presumption in science fiction stories is always that, if you upload the "mind," the result will be a less than human product, because the "heart" won't necessarily follow.  Okay, that's a bad example, because first it's science fiction, and second narrative always needs a conflict, and what better one is there than that transferring "you" to a machine will result in something that is no longer wholly "you."

But what is "you"?

For the longest time in Western history, "you" were your soul; and your soul was your essence.  This, on the other hand, was not always true.  "Soul" as we understand pretty much reaches back to Plato, and pretty much entered Western thought with Neo-Platonism becoming wed to Christian theology.  It's a long story, but the more popular notion for centuries was a version of what the Hebrews called ruah, or the Greeks pneuma (it's used that way in the Greek New Testament):  breath, wind, life.  It was, of course, the classic method of determining whether the body was unconscious, or dead:  was there any wind, any breath, left?  Without it, how could there be life?

Soul, that abstract, inchoate, metaphysical something which both animated the corpus and provided your identity, your self, became more popularly accepted much later.  And then we discarded it as unscientific, and took up the much more secular "consciousness" as our preferred term.  But when we use it we still mean "soul," except perhaps without the "eternal" modifier.  And, of course, we still speak of "heart," although we insist we don't mean that muscle beating in our chest.  Heart is somehow not consciousness, but also somehow still important to us (to lose your "heart" is to become a machine, a soul-less being, less than human but more than a zombie, and yet frightening because, without a heart, what is there in you that human to appeal to?).  Heart is important, but we can set it aside in favor of better living through technology and eternal life through some kind of "mapping" of our "consciousness" onto....well, what's the latest hardware?  That's always the source of this kind of miracle.

"Mapping," by the way, is a mathematical concept, one I last encountered when studying Russell and Whitehead's attempt to map philosophy onto mathematics, an attempt Kurt Godel blew to pieces with relentless logic (and, not coincidentally, mapping).  Mapping persists in some corners outside the realm of mathematics as some kind of magic that will, through processes unknown, accomplish miracles, usually involving computers and human brains.  It sounds kind of like the road map we can now get on our cell phones, or maybe an atlas that shows us all the major physical features of the planet, but it must involve some kind of correspondence like that, between paper (or electronic) reality, and "real" reality.  Besides, the brain is just like a computer, right?  Neurons are hardware, thoughts are software, consciousness is A.I. we just haven't accomplished yet.  See how effortlessly mind maps onto machine?

Actually, you see what a hall of mirrors this quickly becomes.  And yet it is undone by a simple question:  why can't I expect one day to upload my heart, my soul?  Why is consciousness something machines can one day be expected to share with humans, but heart and soul are not?

It's questions like this that make me think people like to entertain themselves with fairy tales, even as they condemn religious people for believing "nonsense."


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  2. That idea, mostly pushed by the crackpot genius, Ray Kurtzweil, always reminded me of Simak's last novel, Time is the Simplest Thing, in which most of the action is motivated by a family who have to go on the lam through time and space to escape some beings who want to turn them into a form that will last eternally, through the decay of protons, if I recall correctly. Of course, they would be disembodied or nearly so and effectively dead, which, I guess would be a minor complication of such beings.

    I don't know exactly what it's worth but Rupert Sheldrake, in his book, Science Set Free notes that the dogma that memory is a material trace isn't universally held, he notes that Bergson, A.H. Whitehead, Bertrand Russell and Wittgenstein all held that memories are direct connections across time, not material traces. As I recall, part of the idea pretty much violates the conventional concept of time, though I've tried Bergson and I'm miles away from understanding what he meant.

    I'm skeptical that the chemicals necessary for minds to be physical entities could form fast enough in real time to account for even our most casual experience of thinking, in which every hardly discernible variation of thought that goes on in our head which we can later recall would have to have its own, unique, though related structure or molecule, stored in a retrieval system of incomprehensible structure and accuracy. I don't see how our brains could know how to make just the right molecules and structures for ideas that are entirely novel, which, literally, no one else has ever had and do it automatically and put it in such a system. The more I thought about the idea of "brain only" the more ridiculous and uninformed by even low level logical analysis it is.

    You may know I think that computers were based on metaphors of human thinking so using them to try to understand the thing they were modeled on - imperfectly and merely by convention instead of knowledge of how minds actually work - is poppycock.

  3. What I want to know is, when Captain Kirk beams down to Planet Pheridium, or whatever, is he the same guy when he re-constitutes, or did he get blown to smithereens in the transporter, with the guy on the planet being a copy so perfect, having Kirk's memories, such that no one knows the difference?

  4. Funny you should mention that. That was actually the subject of a science fiction story, "Rogue Moon" by Algis Budrys. I won't go into the reasons, but it involves teleporting a guy to a Moon base repeatedly, because what he's doing there kills him over and over.

    But the process makes a copy, which stays on earth, and a copy which stays on the moon (no machine to send him back, and then there would be two, anyway). And while the story revolves around the reason for the repeated attempts on the Moon, it's also about the fact, at the end, that there are two of him, and neither is actually "him," because both are reconstructions of the process of teleportation.

    At least the designer of the machine insists that is so (he also goes to the Moon, for what is the final trip, and leaves himself behind on Earth, too.)

  5. Am I less me if there are two of me? Or an infinite number of me's? [Copies] Identical twins (rarely, larger #s of identicals) aren't saddled w/ instant genesis of their twin sometime AFTER their birth. Another me, who had all my memories (as of the moment of genesis), but over whom I had no control? Whoa. I often think there's too much me in this world as it is!