Monday, May 12, 2014

Death demystified.

"…life does not consist mainly—or even largely—of facts and happenings. It consists mainly of the storm of thoughts that is forever blowing through one’s head."  
—Mark Twain 

Update: I just found this great post over at Math With Bad Drawings, as well as the great little cartoon above which seem to be at odds with what I've said on the topic of death and transferring consciousness. Both use the Star Trek transporter, or something just like it. I wonder if I can convince them that there's nothing to be afraid of about these kinds of transporters? So here is a cleaned up version of my argument on the topic, presented as a thought experiment. Enjoy!

Think for a moment about what it's like to die.

Don't worry about how you got that way; there's no need to be gruesome! Just think about what it would be like to experience the moment or process of death, absent all of the messy, external confusions. If you think there is an experience of being dead that comes afterward, try and imagine that experience. Consider what you could imagine others coming up with in response to such a question. Imagine what your friends might think of death. Picture the death experience of anyone else—a psychic medium, a skeptic, a clergyman, an atheist, a neurologist, a suicide bomber—and just come to a conclusion about which one you think is most likely to be the actual experience for you before you read any further, OK?


Good. Now think of your favorite animal with a silly hat on. You just died. How was it?


Obviously you're not dead and you didn't just die insofar as we understand those words at the moment, but what I'm going to try and convince you of over the course of this blog post is that death (the root experience, not all the moaning and groaning leading up to it) is not really any different from the moment between two thoughts.


Consider the following thought experiment (or you may prefer the German word Gedankenexperiment):
You are taken to the laboratory of a (possibly mad) scientist who claims to be able to completely measure the structure and physical state of a person's entire nervous system in an instant. This is effectively taking a snapshot of your inner mind or, if you are familiar with computers or perhaps video games, it is like a stored copy of everything in a hard drive, RAM, and processor at a given instant.
To prove to you that he can indeed copy the exact brain state, he asks you to think of anything at all—a concept, a memory, an object, really anything, preferably something very complex—and remember what it was that you thought about. As you take a moment to develop your thought, he secretly presses a button. After a moment, he asks you to tell him what it was that you thought about. As you answer, you hear your voice being projected from speakers in the room.
"What was that? Is there a microphone on in here?" you say and hear, a bit surprised.
The madman points to a monitor just behind you and you turn to notice what looks like an image of you standing in the lab taken from a security camera that you now notice is looking down from the corner of the ceiling.
"It takes surprisingly long for the states to diverge," he lectures, "but we can speed this along for the sake of our demonstration. Please watch the monitor."
You watch yourself watching yourself again. You see the lab-coated figure of the scientist turn his back to the camera and enter a command into a keyboard, and then, as if in a cheap camera trick, he vanishes from the scene in an instant
You whirl on your heels to see where the old man was standing behind you, only to find him standing normally except for his face, which has a look of smugness on it like he's just landed his newly-developed jetpack on top of your tacky garden birdbath. As your face contorts with confusion, you turn around just in time to see your image on the monitor gesture towards the monitor as your voice but not your words come clearly over the speakers:
"Hey how come I'm moving on here? Is this some kind of—" Your image has completed a casual turn towards the location of the jetpack pilot's disappearance "—Hey, where'd you go?"
After a few moments of both of you incredulously stammering at the aforementioned look on his face, the grinning fiend silences you and leads you and the monitor through a series of exercises which, by their completion, have completely convinced you that both you and your simulated self in the monitor are undoubtedly independent realizations of the same human consciousness. The monitor did, after all, perfectly match your behavior until the moment that the virtual image of the professor was deleted from the simulation, and it knows everything about you—your birthday, your favorite everything, even immensely personal and trivial details of your inner thoughts such as what combat maneuvers you imagined occurring in the daydreamed dogfight you held in the skies over the countryside as you occupied yourself on the ride over to the lab.
Then, just as you're beginning to ponder the moral implications of the technology, he enters another command and your double vanishes. While you think you may have just witnessed a new form of murder, you feel a bit relieved—After all, if the being in that simulated reality was alive, did it have rights to your bank account? Your kids? Your spouse? Luckily, it unnerves you that you're relieved, which relieves your unnervedness about being relieved. One can only hope that thinking like this is a temporary symptom of having been exposed to such a radical experience, and not a side effect of the procedure that was unwittingly performed on you just now.
I hope you're intrigued, but let's stop for a moment and consider some objections you may already have with this experiment. Some might say, sure, it walks, talks, and thinks like a human being, but it's just machinery and electricity whirring around in there. It isn't really aware, it's just programmed to act like it is. Some of you might even say that the simulated version of you in the monitor didn't have a soul. However, how does that really matter? You are a collection of physical machinery and electrical signals, after all. Does it matter that you're so much moister than an artificial machine? If we could arrange a second set of the countless individual atoms that constitute your body in an exactly analogous way to those already in your body, would that arrangement not open its eyes and ask where it is? How are you to say that it would not have a point of view—that it does not have a soul?

But let's continue with our narrative now, because I think some of the coming events will be very applicable to such concerns about the validity of the simulation's point of view.

The old man notes your objections to the "liveness" of the simulation. He too had such reservations, he reveals, until he tried the next phase of the procedure for himself. Intrigued and impressed with the demonstration so far, you reluctantly discard your reservations and agree to the procedure he describes to you:
You're going into the simulation.
The genius at the controls of the devices seems much less mad and more visionary now. He administers an injection and your awareness drifts away. When it returns you are laying on the same table as before, wearing the same clothes, but you are alone. For a brief moment, you think to yourself Hah! I don't remember a thing from the simulation and I'm obviously awake now. I knew that this was just a fancy computer trick. Suddenly, a voice draws your attention to a monitor displaying the face of the scientist.
"Do you recognize this subject behind me?" he asks as if it were any other question, moving out of the camera's field of view to reveal your body lying on the table, still unconscious. 
"I assure you that if you feel now as though you have a point of view, then the simulations do indeed." 
The realization turns your stomach. Were you not just moments ago doubting the existence of a soul for the you in the computer? Do you feel as though you don't exist now? No, everything seems normal. The monitor explains that the simulation is limited in scope, but is capable of simulating a human brain to perfect precision, and is capable of simulating a small environment of a few hundred square feet to sufficient accuracy that the normal human senses are unable to distinguish any abnormality. As if in response to your thought that perhaps the good doctor is pulling a fast one on you by simply claiming that the simulation on the screen is the real world, the monitor then narrates the transformation of the scenery from a laboratory, to a bathroom, to a library, to an underwater cave (you are surprised to find you can breathe normally, or not at all), and back to the laboratory. Indeed, as you examine your hands closely, they are real hands in every possible detail. The computational power is incredible, you note, before suddenly realizing that your stream of consciousness may be cut short very soon. As the scientist steps out of frame, presumably to fiddle with some aspect of the simulation, you worry how you'll get back into your body, back into the actually real world and out of this admittedly vivid laboratory habitat.
Just then, the lab coat steps back onto the screen, behind your unconscious body, and delivers the antidote to the sedative. You see your real, physical body awake and begin to understand the situation as the sleeves of the lab coat trace excited gestures in explanation. You realize that your physical mind is awake and processing independently the deep implications of what is occurring. To your real-world self, this appears no different than the first time. Maybe he's got a decent facsimile of my brain in there, but it doesn't have a point of view; it's just a computer program. You plead with your physical body to understand that you are alive, have a point of view, have a soul, anything to convince yourself that you are yourself as well, but your hear from the monitor only the same objections you gave the old man prior to this procedure. You are suddenly realizing how difficult it is to argue with yourself when you have already made up your mind, and especially when you aren't in control of it.
You become distressed. The lab coat floats away to the control panel again and you panic, shouting and crying and pleading to be allowed to live. You realize what a grave crime was committed when the final keystroke deleted forever your first simulated mind, and you know that this is the end for you this time—but the man turns from the controls and quickly jabs another syringe into what you once called your neck. Your physical body relaxes onto the table again, and gleaming eyes reassure you from above the white coat on the monitor that yours is not the mind that will be forgotten this time. He turns back to the controls and a single keystroke falls.
Immediately you are staring at the fluorescent lights on the ceiling of some other room. You try to look around but your head is pinned in place. You panic. 
"Relax, just relax. The procedure is finished now and I will begin to release you from the restraints immediately upon your cessation of violent activity." 
The scientist's motherly admonishment takes a few moments to register, but soon you concede your helplessness and relax your limbs against what you now recognize as hospital restraints. The same wild eyes that were glimmering at you through the monitorwhat seems like seconds beforenow brim over several weeks of unkempt beard as they dart along with unseen hands to remove the ties and sturdy neck brace. You are free, and your mind screams what now? 
As if in mechanical response to your pleading gaze, the old voice creaks, "That's it. The reverse procedure is much more laborious and involved than the uploading of the mind into the simulation, so it has been... a while. I'm happy to report that your mind appears completely intact, and on only our third attempt at re-installation! To verify, please tell me an account of the past ten minutes' activity from your perspective." 
You recount the experience of being inside the simulation, of the transformation of the scenery, of begging the monitor to spare your life, of your physical mind's incredulity. The man explains that he deactivated your simulated consciousness at that point and has been working to incorporate it into your physical brain in the weeks since. Suddenly you need proof. You ask. You ask for proof that you're finally back in your real body. No amount of explanation is going to calm you down, you need some hard evidence! After all, you did expect to die just a few seconds ago by your internal clock.. 
"How could you ever really know?" is the revelation bestowed upon you by the now guru-ish face being supported by a wrinkled and, you notice unnervingly, lightly blood-stained lab coat. Nonetheless, he draws a curtain to unveil a windowed view over a dramatic expanse of roaring waves crashing against the beautiful and complex coastline you remember from your drive out here earlier this mornNo, earlier this month. Birds hover, silhouetted against the sunset sky in the howling updrafts along the cliffs, and in the distance a highway synaptically transmits headlights along its dark curve. Certainly it would be impossible to simulate, but then that's what you would have said of minds only—what seems like only—hours ago. The physical world will eventually lull you back into the illusion of both your and its uniqueness, but in this moment you understand. 
The waves pound against the coast unceasingly, and the people drive their cars along the curve; and the people think they are, but not the waves.
The practical ability to read a brain state is perhaps not too outlandish (most people can conceptualize it after seeing some of the latest advances in neuroscience imaging and neural control of mechanical systems), but the "re-installation" procedure is probably beyond the abilities of science even in the far future. However, it is physically possible to arrange atoms in the necessary way to install a brain state on a biological brain (proof: you exist), and that's all we need for the purposes of our thought experiment. (Before you begin, let me just quash your quantum dreams and point out that the scales at which quantum indeterminacy begin to offer you a refuge for the concept of a soul or free will are not active in the relatively large-scale workings of cells and cellular machinery, hence the comment by the scientist that "it takes surprisingly long for the states to diverge". Given a complete brain state and perfectly replicating sensory input, it is likely that no difference would be detected in behavior for tens of seconds, at the least.).

The important point is that your consciousness is very much like a computer program which reads from your memory and your senses. Given copies of these fundamental pieces, a computer could perform the necessary functions and advance the "tape" of your memory, adding experiences produced authentically by your own particular software (in this case, perhaps the term "squishware" is more appropriate). Appending these changes to your actual memory in your physical brain would give you the experience of having lived those moments during which your consciousness was running on the computer, of being inside the virtual world of the computer. It is simply a matter of cross-platform compatibility.

What, then, about death? It would seem that death would be the period of time between (or, sadly, after) the periods during which your consciousness was hosted on a suitable platform. It seems that any state of being that doesn't leave a memory is equivalent to death, even if the label doesn't apply semantically. Death is the period of sleep between your dreams, the foreverlong rest beneath the earth, and the moments between the storms of your thoughts. We have vindicated Mark Twain.

An interesting realization of this is that, effectively, you could be vaporized at any instant, so long as your brain state is saved in the instant prior, and carry on your life within a computer at a later date. This could happen between two prepared physical bodies. It is effectively occurring every instant of your life. It's like constantly riding through the Star Trek transporter with the destinations for all of your molecules set to where they'll be after the next trillionth of a second or so. Your mind and your consciousness are not a kernel or an individual in a physical sense, but rather a system which operates. There is no self, no spirit-being manning the controls of your mechanics. You are only your mechanics.

Some people might find this depressing—to believe that they are only a collection of atoms—but what of it? It does not diminish the sensations of existence, the strength of your emotions, or the incredible complexity and preciousness of order contained in the arrangements of those atoms. In fact, our thought experiment should have made it clear that you are not your atoms, they are simply the only medium in which we are currently able to exist. You are information—a blueprint and instructions for a thinking, feeling, living being—and the most complex sort of which we are currently aware in this universe. There should be little to be glum about.

When I first thought through the principles that this experiment brings into focus, I was elated. I had always feared death out of ignorance; at first I was afraid of ending up on the wrong end of Judgment Day, laying awake in my childhood bed, terrified of the flames and agony that surely awaited me and my doubts in divinity; then I was afraid of nothingness, of losing everything and being (for lack of vocabulary) bored, helpless, powerless, and unfeeling for eternity. It was at this moment of inspiration, however, that I conquered my unwarranted fears of death. Death is nothing, no experience, not even that of a bereftness of experience.

If I've not convinced you, I hope I've at least given you a reason to think that perhaps death isn't something to be afraid of by itself, and that the experience of being alive is perhaps nothing more than the process of editing our memory, or of appending new data at the end of the tape. Or maybe I've just entertained you with an interesting "sci-fi-losophical" short story. Let me know whether you think I'm writing about philosophy or science fiction (and whether well or poorly) in the comments.