Archive for the 'Life' Category

Existence, the Self, and Immortality

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?

Additional Context:

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.)

Why do tragedies happen?

Tragedies keep raising the question– why do they happen?

There is a discussion in today’s titled, “Arizona Shootings:  Why did God allow it?

The post is interesting; but the comments are especially interesting – and there are at least a couple of hundred.  Some people take it as an opportunity to debate whether God exists.   That debate is not so interesting.  And that debate could have been prevented by asking the question in a belief-neutral way:

“Why is life so full of suffering for so many?”

Whether you believe in God or not, the two questions are really the same.

And people’s answers to this question are what interested me the most.  There were so many different ways to answer it – and so many similar ways to answer it.  Each answer represented a personal, spiritual, or logical, or thoughtful, mystical, or philosophical, or social activist … perspective, on a question everyone has thought about, and that some keep thinking about, each time reminded of suffering — especially suffering that affects us all as a national or on a global scale.

We think about it, because even for those who don’t believe in God, the idea of so much suffering can raise doubts and despair – or anger or bewilderment at the seemingly wanton nature of being alive in a violent universe. Even people who don’t believe in God are looking for meaning in life – and since life includes suffering: Why? What is the purpose?

And yet, if intense suffering is caused by ‘accidents’ many are able to understand, or at least to accept. Whether religious or non-religious, we can accept suffering as part of life, because we are smart enough, and well developed enough to deal with suffering when it occurs, and otherwise, to enjoy what life has to offer – including most of all, being with other people.   But sometimes, even the “strongest” of us get too much of suffering, and then we are really in need of the help of others, or a long period before taking up our lives again near where we left off .

But when wanton suffering is caused by people, with apparent intention, it seems to be particularly wrenching even for those only  reading about it.

This tragedy was caused by a mentally ill person. But what about other tragedies such as terrorist killings and criminal acts? We somehow don’t think of those perpetrators as “mentally ill” – instead, we think of them as criminals, people who are immoral, or full of hatred and deeply misguided. And yet those terrorists and criminals are in fact created by mentally ill – or at least what you could call extremely stressed – cultures in which they are raised, or groups to whose messages they are vulnerable.

Our “mainstream” society in America does not intentionally nurture terrorism. We also of course oppose crime. And yet, our society does have the potential to prevent much of the mental illness that now occurs, and the potential to prevent immense rage, and depraved, stupid thinking, and all manner of suffering in our cities and neighborhoods.  It is a matter of taking better care of each other, by better funding for our care-giver institutions and professionals, and by our own efforts in our communities.  We can’t get rid of all suffering, but we can definitely do better than turn people away from needed care and sustenance.

Why aren’t we doing a lot better? Because it’s too expensive??   How much does it cost to let suffering grow?

Maybe, after all, that’s a better question to be asking than “Why is there suffering?”   (And you may have noticed, I didn’t really give an answer to that question.)

Christine Lavin and Lisa Lindberg – twirling at Malaprops

Christine Lavin, songwriter and performer,  is in Asheville and will be performing at the Diana Wortham Theatre tonight.

Here’s a short video of Christine and Lisa Lindberg (ma femme) twirling together at Malaprops.  Christine was there for a talk and book signing for her new book,
Cold Pizza for Breakfast – A Mem Wha??

Lisa will make a brief but illuminating appearance with Christine tonight.

Expansion of choices reduces diversity???

I just read an article from The Nation, by Colin Robinson (via

How Amazon Kills Books and Makes Us Stupid

In summary, Amazon’s dominance of the book market and their intense drive to reduce the costs of books are having these effects:

  • Drastically reducing the number of independent book sellers.
  • Reducing the income of publishers, and especially authors.
  • Making it more and more difficult for authors to produce well-crafted and thoroughly researched books.
  • And reducing cultural diversity by overwhelming customers with choices.

This last point is the most surprising – and sounds the most paradoxical.  How could more diversity of choice reduce cultural diversity?

Embedded in the middle of the article is this explanation:

According to industry statisticians Bowker, just over 172,000 titles were released in 2005. Last year “traditional” output had risen to 288,000 titles, a significant enough increase by itself. But adding what Bowker describes as “self-published” and “micro-niche” books, the total inflates to a staggering 1 million new titles in just twelve months.

“Many would argue that the efflorescence of new publishing that Amazon has encouraged can only be a good thing, that it enriches cultural diversity and expands choice.

“But that picture is not so clear: a number of studies have shown that when people are offered a narrower range of options, their selections are likely to be more diverse than if they are presented with a number of choices so vast as to be overwhelming. In this situation people often respond by retreating into the security of what they already know.

“As Barry Schwartz, author of The Paradox of Choice, explains, ‘When the choice set is larger, people tend to make worse choices. They choose on the basis of what’s easiest to evaluate, rather than what’s important to evaluatethe safe, highly marketed option usually comes out on top.’

Actually, this phenomenon isn’t really the fault of Amazon, but is rather part of the effect of making it easier and cheaper for individuals to create their own content, i.e., to self-publish.   It’s of course not just happening in the world of books, but in all manner of media and content, including newspapers, reporting, editorials, and reviews, film, video, and photography, music, etc..

This is an incredible expansion in creativity and expression; and at the same time, this expansion has clear effects of creating echo-chambers where we, “the masses” who are now “personalized” are clumping together like never before and having less and less thoughtful exposure to ideas beyond those that we ‘naturally’ prefer and seek out.

So these are not new reflections.

But still, what are the answers?   How can we break through this paradox of explosions of expressions and choices that somehow create an implosion of diversity and dialogue?  (Actually, it’s not an implosion of diversity, as much as an explosion into huge and small fragments that appear to have not much to do with each other.)

Somehow the “answers” will have to be the creation of common experiences that invite curiosity, openness, and simple kindness.   Curiosity mixed with kindness can bridge differences, without eliminating differences.

What kind of experiences would these be?

As a designer of social technology, I can only think that, among other things, these experiences have to include radically new ways  a) to manage attention overload without killing serendipity, and b) to discover “content” that is rewarding – even deeply fulfilling – without relying on naturally clumping algorithms like “Show me more like this one” — or “Show me – books, movies, ideas, etc – that other people like who like the same kinds of stuff I like.

Honestly, with algorithms like that, what can you expect other than bigger and bigger clumps?

Facebook in the toaster?

I enjoyed Valdis’ latest post about Facebook:

Facebook is Toast

But I also disagree that Facebook is toast for the reasons that Valdis gives:

Facebook, and all other online social networking sites are structured wrong. They are places where we have to go to connect and communicate. That is not how we naturally connect and interact as humans!”

I do agree with his point that:

“…we decide on the fly, who to talk to, in what voice, and how much to share. I may deal you differently tomorrow than today depending upon the current context. “

And I agree that:

“In a truly networked world we do not have to go anywhere to connect to others — we just ping from where we are at and wait for the response from where they are at.”

And I also agree that there is still something that feels artificial and a little frantic about many elements of social media.

But I don’t think that makes Facebook toast.

For one thing, Facebook has been very busy in these last two years making Facebook more ubiquitous, so that micro updates and other content posted on Facebook can appear elsewhere, and vice versa.

In addition, the millions who use Facebook frequently — and similar social media — are actually adapting their behavior  and cognitive processes  to the new media.   So it’s a bit anachronistic to say “That is not how we connect and interact as humans!”   The ways we connect change as technology and culture change.   (Though if  we change ourselves too much, symptoms of fatigue such as lack of focus accumulate.)

I personally don’t use Facebook very frequently, and I find it way too cluttered, and too full of micro updates and chaff.   And I don’t like its privacy boorishness. And yet, I still think Facebook has good uses and I like having it around.   E.g., my son and several of my friends and other family use it a lot and it is a good additional way to stay in touch.

But there are millions of people using Facebook who aren’t like me and who use the site a lot more than I do.   If Facebook starts sleeping on the job, or makes a series of garish mistakes, that could cause it to quickly fade.  But otherwise, I see Facebook staying on the scene for quite a while.

And yet, in agreement with Valdis’ points, I’m definitely looking forward to new social media apps that feel more real, and that more intelligently adapt to us as thinking, feeling, and reflecting humans, rather than making us adapt to them.

Our house in the snowy woods

1PM today (the snow is over the tops of my wellies.)

road down to civilization.   (Internet is still on. : )

My favorite twirler

My bonnie lass twirling to Cantrip at the Potomac Celtic Festival.

More info about the bonnie lass:

My grandmother’s house

This is a painting that my mother did of the house where she was born, in 1920, and where she lived until she married my father.  She painted this not long after 1984, when she and her sister and brother closed the house and got it ready for sale after my grandmother died.

painting by Mary Elizabeth Duncan Work

painting by Mary Elizabeth Duncan Work

While my father’s business was getting started, my parents, brother and I also lived in this house for a few years beginning when I entered the first grade.  It was a wonderful house, with great places to hide, and the back yard was full of flowers, especially irises and wisteria, and a grape arbor, and big trees to climb, and lots of shrubs to hide in.   Over the next 30 years my family and I made many visits to this house to see my grandmother, and to celebrate holidays and special gatherings with aunts and uncles and cousins.   I still visit it in my dreams. Continue reading ‘My grandmother’s house’


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