Uploading the Mind
Read any futurism blog, listen to any trans-humanist podcast, watch some science fiction movies – hell it was even mentioned as an off handed joke on an episode of Friends – and you’re bound to come across the notion of uploading or transferring a person’s mind into the digital realm. I find this idea, along with cloning and transferring the mind to another body or android, to be very fruitful topics for speculating about consciousness and identity, both of which transcend body and mind (hence the category of Spirit)
I tend to refer to consciousness and identity as ‘the self’. Obviously, these are very deep topics that much has been written about by folks far smarter than I. But reflecting on the nature of the self, even in as superficially a manner as a simple blog post or 10, is an important, indeed it should a required, endeavor for any human.
The Dependent Self
My ideas and vocabulary about the self are strongly influenced by my study of Buddhism. As the Buddha taught, I see the self as a dependent phenomena who does not exist in any independent way, as an illusion created by the flow of time and sensual experience. I always find it important to note that an illusion still exists; you can see it and it still can have an effect on the world. However, it does not exist on any level independent of whatever is projecting it, like a rock or your body are separate from their surroundings, at least on a molecular level. The most powerful illusions rely heavily if not exclusively on shared experience as well. Money is a wonderful example. Money, like the self, is an idea, a consensual illusion that has a very transformative effect on ‘reality’.
In thinking of these phenomena I also make extensive use of Buckminster Fuller’s now ubiquitous term – synergy. I see my mind as a synergistic phenomena of my body, and I am the synergistic result of the interaction between my body, mind, and environment. My mind and my I are the meta-result of separate, interacting processes that combine and work together to form something more than its parts. So based on these definitions, the idea of uploading one’s self into a digital format is impossible and based on a mis-understanding of what the self is, or that it ‘is’ at all. Just as I could not take an essential piece of a bicycle away and still refer to that thing as a bicycle (unless I was referring to it’s potential to be a bicycle if the necessary part were added back to it), the same could be said for my mind. Take away the parts that cause it to exist when they are functioning as a whole – my body – and it ceases to exist. There is a lot of subtlety to this model, of course. Working with Alzheimer’s patients I see their minds dissipate and initially their bodies still function normally, whereas with an ALS patient I watch as their bodies rapidly change and their minds stay intact.
These ideas of uploading one’s self or mind are directly related to Cartesian dichotomy, an idea that is very fundamental to the western outlook and a direct evolution of primitive ideas of anima and the soul, as if we are just walking corpses inhabited by passing spirits that exist in some independent, separate plane, like in Plato’s theory of forms.
The self then is a completely dependent phenomena. I like to think of it as a hologram projected from a body, mind, and the physical space it occupies as well as the accumulation of experience. This understanding is important in so many ways, from understanding your own mental states and reactions to experiences to fostering a wider spectrum of empathy and compassion. When I see my self as an extension of what’s around me I feel a greater connection and barriers to accepting different ideas become softer.
As technology improves and we find that we can not upload our minds or our selves, I hope that this view of the self will take hold. If humans saw their selves in this way, the roots of a great deal of suffering would be uprooted. Maybe then we’ll all start talking like Jaqen H’ghar in Game of Thrones.
This man can only hope so.