In the movie Chappie, the consciousness of a human is transferred into a robot, making it possible for a person who died physically to continue living.
The idea of being able to transfer the conscience to another vessel, and retain a complete sense of the original person, has been covered in a few different ways. For example, in Star Trek, to be teleported means that your atoms are broken down at point A, transmitted to point B and then reassembled in the same state.
The question is: is it a copy of you reassembled at point B, or is it indeed you with your original consciousness?
In BV Larson’s famous and awesome sci-fi series Undying Mercenaries, soldiers are scanned and their information is backed up on a regular basis. This gives them great comfort when going on life-threatening missions because when they die, they know they can be recreated from stored information.
But if a soldier is rebuilt from a previous snapshot, is it really “him” (or “her”)? Has his consciousness survived, or is it only a copy of himself?
What Is Consciousness?
|Wikipedia has a chunky paragraph defining consciousness, but I would summarize it as being able to stand back and realize that this is "me" inside my head, and then being able to define myself according to a set of parameters. This would be like describing the people working for a company. Look, there's Jim; he always smells like KFC. There's Mary, she's the quiet one, and there's Jan from accounting. They all make up the character, heart and soul of Pencils R Me, our company identity.|
But from the point of view of you who died, your consciousness has not survived. You’re dead, gone onto whatever is beyond. The fact that a copy has been restored and an identical twin created somewhere else is neither here nor there for you. The person, the consciousness that existed, is gone.
In software terms, let’s liken it to a program running on one computer. Let’s call the program Alpha. A backup process now takes a snapshot, copies it to another computer where it starts to run (Beta). These two programs, although similar, are now different processes, responding to different inputs, running independently. Turn Alpha’s computer off and Alpha dies. It’s existence ceases; it experienced its own death and then oblivion after that.
Beta sees itself as Alpha that was copied to a new host, where it now runs happily. We’re not interested in Beta’s happiness; we want to prevent Alpha from experiencing death. In other words, if we want to get Alpha onto another (newer) machine, we will have to think of a cleverer copy process to have Alpha on the other machine and not Beta, who looks a lot like Alpha but is not Alpha.
How to Preserve Consciousness in a Copy Process?
In his book The House of Suns, Alastair Reynolds came up with a viable solution. The person in the story wanted to copy his consciousness into a machine body. He approached the problem in a step-by-step fashion, by having his neurons replaced one-by-one with machine parts in the same fashion as is described by Paul King in this Quora article. His solution is similar to people working for a company defining its character and lending it a certain voice. People will come and go gradually, and in a couple of years, the entire staff might be different, but because it was a gradual process, the voice of the company did not change. The same could be done if intelligent robots replaced personnel as they left, as long it remained a gradual process.
If we go back to the Alpha and Beta programs, where we wanted Alpha on the second machine and not Beta, we’d have to replace the first machine, transistor by transistor, until we had a new machine with Alpha running on it.
But, are we not oversimplifying consciousness? What if there are elements of multidimensionality or even a whack of the supernatural thrown into what we are?
Consciousness and the Soul
For centuries, philosophers and scientists both have been trying to determine what exactly makes us the individuals we are. It isn’t the physical body completely. We teach our children it is what they think and feel that makes them unique. We teach them it is what is “inside” that makes them who they are. But inside where? Most would answer “the brain”. But what is it about the brain that makes us who we are? It is a mass of tissue that operates by a combination of electrical and chemical connections.
Every brain is designed to work the same way. Circuits made up of nerves are created or blocked and the impulses send messages throughout the body. This is, however, exactly how the brain works in the majority of living things. It is not the operation of the brain that makes us who we are but what is often referred to as the soul, or consciousness. So what is this soul?
Consciousness can also be defined as having an awareness of ourselves and our surroundings. With this definition, we are then what we experience with our senses. We are the emotions we feel, the thoughts we have and the actions we take. What the term consciousness lacks is that which is instinctual or subconscious.
Here lies a problem for that would mean things like breathing or your heart beating are not a part of you They happen without thought. It is instinct to pull your hand away from a hot flame. This isn’t done with any thought. A person may bury feelings such as anger or fear deep within or forget a traumatic incident. These things exist on a subconscious level.
If consciousness is who we are, then by definition these things are not part of who we are. But they are, for they still influence our behavior. So let’s look at another theory of what makes us us. Unless there is a way to find out exactly where those instinctual and subconscious things are, any transferring would be incomplete, making the resulting being an incomplete version of the original.
It’s All Energy
Energy is said to be the one thing everything is made from. This includes both the physical and non-physical. With this theory, the only difference between say an idea and the kitchen table is the rate at which the energy moves. This poses a few problems when it comes to transferring one from one body to a second. First, what is this energy made of and where does it originate?
It has not yet been determined how one type of energy can vibrate at the number of speeds that would be necessary to create so many different things. Another issue is – have you ever seen an idea or a feeling? How can you capture energy that you can’t see? You can’t capture and contain something that you do not know what its properties are. Without the ability to capture and contain the energy that is said to make up everything, you can’t effectively transfer it from one place to another.
…But I’m not a Soldier
The soul is considered the essence of our being by yet another group of theorists. What exactly is the soul? That is a question that has never been answered yet. There are pictures that seem to capture an essence that leaves the body at the moment of physical death. Yet, nobody has been able to touch this vapor and most people have never been able to see it. While this “soul” can be said to be what gives animation to a physical body, or life, we can’t say it is different for each individual or that it carries that individual’s thoughts, emotions or the very essence of their being. Nobody can claim to have contained a soul outside a human body. If that is the case, there is no way to transfer it from one body to another.
Transferring the essence of an individual from a physical body to a cyborg or any other substitution for a body is not possible because we do not truly know what makes up the essence of an individual. Without this knowledge, we can’t capture that essence and contain it until it can be transferred. Until such a time when these important questions can be answered, any attempt at transference will result in something that is less than the original.
SciFi Books Referenced