I recently finished reading David Brin’s latest novel: Existence. It is brimming with ideas – overflowing, entertaining, thought-provoking, and imagined in hugely creative and insightful detail. See
It explores acres of fascinating questions and hypotheses, including the possibility that in the near future (next 30 to 100 years) humans will be able to make copies of themselves.
This raises a question that I’ve been thinking about for a while, and that can only be answered by a thought-experiment.
If you make fully-working and conscious copies of yourself, does that mean that you will continue to live through those copies? – That you won’t die?
Ray Kurzweil, important prophet of the Singularity, has said very emphatically that he wants to live forever, and that everyone who says that they “accept” death is kidding themselves.
Well, let’s say that before you die you can upload all your DNA and your entire neural connectome, and whatever else would make the upload into a complete working copy of you.
So then when the organic body you’ve been hanging out in for all these years dies, will the existence of the version of you that is created from all your data mean that you will not have died?
That is, will it be any different from what we now know as dying?
Here are more ruminations that can shed some light:
Let’s say you create 2 copies, or heck, 2000 copies of yourself.
Immediately after these copies are “activated” they will be identical to you – at the time the copy was made. They will each “wake up” and for them at that moment it will be like having been asleep during the time between making the copy and activating it (waking it up).
But now they will each also start having new experiences, which will be entirely different. Some of them will get sick, some of them will die, some will have good luck, some will not.
(And don’t forget they’ll all have to share your single set of possessions, relatives and friends and bank accounts as they gradually start differentiating and ‘making their own way in the world.’)
So how is this kind of “waking up” in a new copy of your body any different than waking up each morning (after some time of unconscious sleep) in your current body?
I’m not sure it is any different.
So, what that tells me is that if you die in your sleep it makes no difference to the copy of you that died, because that copy is now dead. Other copies may continue to live, but that doesn’t change the fact that another copy of you died.
In other words – you who are now living in your mother-born body will not continue to exist – you will die – even if copies of you continue to live. That is, those copies won’t really be you. They will each have their own you.
So the tragedy of death isn’t really such a great tragedy to those who have died (as we all have said many times) – it is only an event that affects those who know you and continue to live. That is, the copies can be some comfort (or maybe continued torment) to those who loved (or feared or disliked) you.
So why is our own personal death such a big deal? Again, I think this thought-experiment shows that it is not.
People accept death for a number of reasons – most of which have to do with the fact that they identify with something larger than their own ego, mind, body and set of memories. For example:
- They believe they will live in heaven with God after they die.
- They are able to directly experience their own inner Self as pure Consciousness which they experience as unbounded, unchanging, and as the source of all creativity and intelligence.
- They have had some other but related type of mystical experience.
- They’re inspired by children and continual new life and they’re willing to let others take their turn. (They aren’t greedy.)
- They accept death along with birth, sex, and the pursuit of knowledge and happiness – all as important parts of Life on Earth – and throughout the Universe.
- They feel their life has been fulfilling and they’re ready to move on to whatever mystery awaits.
(This thought experiment also raises another metaphysical question: What if your body and living mind is actually — startlingly to some — associated with a soul that lives after death and is repeatedly reincarnated – or that goes finally to its reward, or elsewhere.
So, given the existence of a soul of some kind, will all the copies of you have to share the same soul? If so, will the soul get confused when one or multiple copies of you die – e.g., not know when to reincarnate, or cause some mental/psychical instability in all the different copies?
Or instead, will each new copy of you somehow automatically generate a new soul? This question is in parenthesis because I know it isn’t so important to people who don’t believe in souls or reincarnation or heaven or hell. But no one of us can really be sure, until you die, or maybe have a near-death experience. So it’s definitely an interesting question to pose. And I definitely don’t have a final answer to it.)