How Can Live Forever?: 

What Does and Does Not Preserve the Self

G. Stolyarov II
Issue CCLVI - August 1, 2010
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When we seek indefinite life, what is it that we are fundamentally seeking to preserve? I begin by observing that I perceive the world as myself – Gennady Stolyarov II – and not as any other person. That is, while I may be able to envision another person’s perspective, I cannot directly assume another person’s physical sensations and thoughts; I cannot become another person. At the same time, my own sensations and thoughts, as I experience them directly, are what constitute my being, or – since “being” is too general a term – my “I-ness”.

Consider what would happen if a scientist discovered a way to reconstruct, atom by atom, an identical copy of my body, with all of its physical structures and their interrelationships exactly replicating my present condition. If, thereafter, I continued to exist alongside this new individual – call him GSII-2 – it would be clear that he and I would not be the same person. While he would have memories of my past as I experienced it, if he chose to recall those memories, I would not be experiencing his recollection. Moreover, going forward, he would be able to think different thoughts and undertake different actions than the ones I might choose to pursue. I would not be able to directly experience whatever he choose to experience (or experiences involuntarily). He would not have my “I-ness” – which would remain mine only.

Now suppose that instead of GSII-2 being my contemporary, he was created in some dystopian future where I had already died of some misfortune or another, but someone found a way to reconstruct the latest healthy state of my body, including my mind, atom for atom. The situation with regard to preservation of my self would not change; GSII-2 would be able to live as if he had my past knowledge and experiences – but my “I-ness” would still be gone; it would not transfer to him simply because the original Gennady Stolyarov II had died. Indeed, the I who had died would never be aware in any manner of GSII-2’s existence or any experiences he might have in this future time.

What is, then, this “I-ness” which can be preserved through some transformations and not through others? For instance, it is true that every atom comprising one’s body now is not the same as the corresponding atom that comprised one’s body seven years ago. Nonetheless, if one remains alive, one’s “I-ness” is clearly preserved. How can that be? It is so because the replacement does not occur all at once. Rather, at any given time, only a small fraction of the atoms in one’s body are being replaced as old cells and their components take in energy, replicate, die, and are replaced by others. Thus, the continuity of bodily processes is preserved even as their physical components are constantly circulating into and out of the body. The mind is essentially a process made possible by the interactions of the brain and the remainder of nervous system with the rest of the body. One’s “I-ness”, being a product of the mind, is therefore reliant on the physical continuity of bodily processes, though not necessarily an unbroken continuity of higher consciousness. This can shed some light on which situations would allow for the preservation of one’s “I-ness” and which would not.

Situations That Allow for Preservation of “I-ness”

Sleep – Sleep is often not even a suspension of consciousness; dreams, for instance, are cases of the consciousness turning in on itself, examining and remixing data that have already been absorbed from the external world. Deep, dreamless sleep, where the passage of time is not noticed by the sleeper, also does not involve a cessation of bodily activity – and certain subconscious areas of the brain continue to work during it as well.

General Anesthesia – General anesthesia induces a temporary completely unconscious state in a patient, but it does not shut down the body completely; essential mechanisms, including the heart, continue to operate. Consciousness that is suspended and then revived, with the other bodily processes having remained continuous in the meantime, will not become an entirely different consciousness with a different “I-ness” but will rather preserve its previous “I-ness”. Having once been under general anesthesia, I can say with certainty that my “I-ness” had not been terminated in the process.

Comas and Vegetative States – During a coma or a vegetative state, basic, largely involuntary, bodily processes continue to function. If full functionality of the brain is eventually restored, the underlying system in which the “I-ness” emerges would still have functioned uninterrupted in the meantime. Some recovered coma patients, however, have also reported being aware of their surroundings during the coma, suggesting that aspects of higher consciousness can also be preserved without interruption in such a condition.

Rescues from the Brink of Death – Situations where individuals have had close  brushes with death may involve cessation of functionality for some bodily systems but not for all. At least with current technology, the affected systems can only be “restarted” because some of the body’s systems have not yet completely failed. This means that nothing about such experiences would preclude the continuity of one’s “I-ness”.

Incremental Organ Replacement – An artificial organ that is incorporated into a functioning bodily system will not disrupt the continuity of that system. Before, during, and after the transplant, the body continues to execute numerous important functions, and the new organ – provided that the transplant is accepted by the body – becomes just a new part of the same continuous system. As with atoms all being replaced over time, it is at least conceivable that – via a series of gradual replacements – all of a person’s organs, including the brain, could be exchanged for artificial varieties without disrupting the continuity of that person’s identity. This, of course, would only be the case provided that the organs were replaced one or a few at a time. With replacing the brain in this fashion, particular care would need to be taken to ensure that the replacement is not a situation of simply taking out the existing brain and putting a new one in its place. Rather, the new brain would need to start as an addendum to the existing brain, so that the existing brain could integrate its contents with the new brain before parts of the existing brain (for instance, a physically diseased or irreparably damaged brain) are taken out of commission. If a gradual replacement is performed, it might even be possible for an individual to eventually have a fully electronic brain that still preserves that individual’s “I-ness”.

Situations That Would Not Preserve “I-ness”

Reanimation After Full Death – Suppose, instead of creating an identical atom-for-atom replica of a dead individual, that individual’s fully dead corpse were instead exhumed and rehabilitated by restoring all bodily systems to a functional level and in configurations exactly replicating  the dead individual’s last healthy state. While, here, the individual’s actual body would be worked on, in terms of the preservation of “I-ness”, this situation is no different from the case of a perfect replica of a deceased person having been made from scratch. The reanimated individual would possess the knowledge and memories of the dead individual, but the dead individual would not be aware of the reanimated individual’s existence and would not experience the reanimated individual’s subsequent interactions with the world. There may, of course, be tremendous value for others in reanimating already dead people, as the reanimated individuals’ personalities and mental states (shaped by the dead individuals’ actual past, which the reanimated individuals would perceive the illusion of having experienced) could be invaluable in improving the world. Moreover, the reanimated individuals would certainly be happy to be alive and would be as fully human and entitled to the same rights as would have been the dead individuals on whom they were modeled.   However, while the reanimation of already dead people would be a fascinating breakthrough, it would do nothing for preserving the “I-nesses” of those who had already died.

With practices such as cryonics – where the hope is to eventually reanimate currently clinically dead individuals by placing their bodies in biological stasis in the meantime – the issue of whether “I-ness” would be preserved is a bit more challenging to address. Cryonics relies on the premise that the current definition of death – based on what situations of bodily decay today’s medicine would be able to reverse – would not be the same as the definition of death prevalent in the future, when many more conditions would hopefully be reversible. If an individual who is clinically dead by today’s definition but would not be clinically dead by a future definition is “frozen” today in a particular condition, the hope is that future technologies would – even by their routine application – be able to revive that person. However, in order to accomplish the preservation of the body up to that time, cryonics relies on suspending the physical processes within the body as much as possible. If these processes were not suspended, then their natural operation would lead to further decay of the body to the point where it might be extremely difficult or impossible to recover even using future technologies. While the cryonically preserved individual is not fully dead, at least under a future definition, it is not clear what the implications of putting an entire body (including all physical systems, not just some) in stasis and later reanimating that same body would be for the preservation of “I-ness”. Moreover, I can only speculate as to whether cryonic preservation would still involve some extremely low-key uninterrupted functioning of bodily systems – or whether it would require a complete shutdown of all systems. In the latter case, a cessation of “I-ness” would appear to be much more likely than in the former.

“Uploading” of Consciousness – Particular caution should be taken with regard to any proposals to “upload” an individual’s mind, personality, or memories onto a computer or an Internet-like network. I can conceive of ways where such “uploading” might be safe with regard to not disrupting an existing “I-ness”, but I strongly doubt that the “uploaded” consciousness could serve as itself a perpetuator of the same “I-ness”. Assuming that it would become possible to encode all the information in a person’s brain in a similar manner as files can be written to a portable drive and then copied to a computer, this would only create a copy of mental configurations. That copy might even have advanced interactive functionality, but it would not and could not replace the person of whose mind the copy was made.  This situation might even be compared to the simultaneous existence of an individual and an identical replica of that individual in the body; just as these two people would have two different “I-nesses”, so would the original bodily consciousness of the individual whose mind had been “uploaded” have a different “I-ness” from the “I-ness” of the “uploaded” mind (and I do not rule out the possibility of a non-organic entity of sufficient complexity being self-aware).

The “uploading” situation I described is similar to making an interactive archive of one’s mind – which might, in its more advanced implementations, also be self-aware. I recognize numerous potential benefits to such an approach, provided that it does not destroy or presume to replace the bodily mind which is being “uploaded”. The much more dangerous version of the “uploading” ambition perceives the “uploading” as a sort of migration of the consciousness from a corporeal (be it organic or inorganic) environment to a virtual environment. Any cessation of the corporeal person’s bodily processes as a consequence of such a “migration” would destroy that person’s “I-ness” – just as dying and having a bodily replica of oneself built afterward would. It would be tragic indeed if people for whom indefinite self-preservation is the foremost goal inadvertently destroyed their essential vantage points in the attempt to perpetuate them.

“Merging” of Consciousnesses – Some futurists have expressed the desire to eventually connect multiple individuals’ consciousnesses via electronic means – much as computers can be connected to one another. Such connections are supposed to facilitate individuals’ abilities to sense directly the experiences of the other individuals to whom their minds are connected. But such an undertaking – depending on how it is implemented – may also have destructive effects with regard to the “I-nesses” of the individuals being connected.

I can conceive of two qualitatively different scenarios where individual consciousnesses might be connected. Scenario 1 would appear to be innocuous. To understand how it might work, suppose that it became possible to upload copies of an individual’s thoughts and experiences onto a portable medium – much as one might upload a file from a computer onto a portable drive without destroying the original file. If it becomes possible to directly convey thoughts and experiences in an electronic medium, then such copying and transfer from one mind to another might also become possible. Taken one step beyond a portable medium that can be “plugged into” one conscious system and then transported to another, one might envision a more continuous mechanism for doing so – similar to a wireless Internet connection over which information is transferred. But it is important to recognize that, while this linkage might enable Mind X to experience what Mind Y experiences, the two experience sets would still be perceived by the separate “I-nesses” of Mind X and Mind Y. If Mind Y obtained the experiences of Mind X and Mind X were to be physically destroyed, the “I-ness” of X would not be transferred to Y. This scenario has a parallel in currently available technologies such as explorer robots which have entered narrow shafts in Egyptian pyramids and traversed the surface of Mars, sending back continuous live images of what their cameras recorded. These images enable a human observer to experience the environment of the robot without being in that environment.  However, if that robot were instead a conscious being, the transmission of images and even other sensory stimuli from this being would not equate to an extension of the being’s “I-ness” to the observer. This scenario would, presumably, allow for each individual participating in the sharing of information to select which information to share or to keep to oneself, much as a computer connected to the Internet does not need to share all of the files on it with other computers in the network. 

However, another scenario – call it Scenario 2 – with regard to “merging” consciousnesses could not avoid destroying the “I-nesses” of those involved. This scenario would constitute a complete merger, where the aim is for every consciousness to be able to directly assume the vantage point of every other and to control the actions of the others directly – without any meaningful separation possible among the minds involved.  If two “I-nesses” were to merge in this manner, then they would probably become a single “I-ness” based on the combined sensations of the previous “I-nesses”. But, just as mixing two fruits together in a blender and separating the results into two halves would not yield the original fruits, neither would combining two “I-nesses” and then separating them (assuming this would be technically feasible) result in the original “I-nesses”. At best, there would be two “hybrid” “I-nesses” and, at worst, no “I-nesses” at all, because the new combined “I-ness” might be destroyed by division just as the “I-ness” of every biological individual today would be eliminated via any attempt to split it into components. Every human observation and experience to date suggests that the human individual is the basic unit of rational, conscious activity – and that physically separating the mind into sub-components destroys the emergent system of rational consciousness.  If the desire is to preserve the individuality of each person – which necessarily implies preserving that person’s self-awareness and vantage point, as directly experienced by that person – the kind of “merging” involved in Scenario 2 should be avoided as contrary to that aim. However, the “file sharing” situation of Scenario 1, where each “I-ness” remains compartmentalized within the individual and experiences are only shared at each individual’s discretion, might be a useful and, if safety precautions are taken, harmless future means of extremely direct communication.

True Preservation of Self

Where does this discussion leave the advocates of literal – as opposed to figurative – immortality who are interested in preserving the actual “I-ness” of each individual, as opposed to simply a memory or record of that individual, however complete and interactive – or creating a functioning replica of that individual in the future? Two general conclusions can be drawn which, while they may be considered somewhat grim, can guide the quest for genuine immortality.

(1) There is no way to resurrect the “I-ness” of a fully dead individual.

(2) There is no way to preserve the “I-ness” of an individual without preserving the spatiotemporal continuity of that individual’s physical body, allowing for incremental modifications to that body.

Facing uncomfortable truths can indeed be a prerequisite to genuine, life-reinforcing progress. The conclusions above do indeed suggest that the quest for indefinite life is more difficult than some might have thought, as only the preservation of the uninterrupted functioning of an individual’s body could bring it about. Individuals who have already fully died (leaving aside the ambiguities and uncertainties entailed in cryonic preservation) have, unfortunately, already irreversibly lost their “I-nesses”, although it is still conceivable that future technologies will render their past experiences of immense benefit to others. The focus of life extension should therefore be the elimination of disease and senescence, the repair of the body, and its gradual, piecewise augmentation via biotechnology, nanotechnology, and electronic technology. The result of such endeavors could, in fact, be compatible with some of the projections of futurists like Ray Kurzweil, who envision a world where human consciousness is improved via electronic means to be orders of magnitude more powerful than it is today. Provided that the underlying system that facilitates the “I-ness” is preserved as a separate system and allowed to function continuously amid a sequence of incremental improvements, there is no reason why human faculties and durability could not be enhanced without bound. We who are still alive can still reap the fruits of potentially limitless future progress, if we manage to survive to see the breakthroughs.

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This TRA feature has been edited in accordance with TRA's Statement of Policy.

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Learn about Mr. Stolyarov's novel, Eden against the Colossus, here.

Read Mr. Stolyarov's comprehensive treatise, A Rational Cosmology, explicating such terms as the universe, matter, space, time, sound, light, life, consciousness, and volition, here.

Read Mr. Stolyarov's four-act play, Implied Consent, a futuristic intellectual drama on the sanctity of human life, here.