The Illusion of Immortality

and the Immortality of Illusions:


The Subjective Perceptions of Self and Continuity of Consciousness

and the Costs and Benefits of Preserving These Perceptions Unto Eternity



Ben Goertzel

Novamente, LLC /

Applied Research Laboratory, Virginia Tech National Capital Region



Many of us have the feeling that we would like to live forever or at least to live a very long time, without the fear of involuntary death, until such (hypothetical, perhaps never-arriving) point as we decide freely that continued life is no longer of interest.

My goal in this essay is to probe a little deeper into this feeling than is usually done. What does it really mean to want to live forever? Delving into the meaning of live and forever isnt that fascinating to me, though it does give rise to some significant issues (to what extent is our sense of self tied to our physical body? what are the odds that the physical universe containing us will end in a Big Crunch or some similar calamity, making literal immortality impossible?). What intrigues me more is digging into the I who wants to live forever. What exactly is it thats being perpetuated, in the hypothesis of eternal life? How can we tell whether, in a particular scenario, this I is really being perpetuated or not?

I take a lot for granted before I even begin this conceptual investigation. I assume that human immortality is physically possible, sociologically, economically and psychologically practical, and morally acceptable. I realize that all of these points have been and still are disputed by a variety of intelligent and thoughtful individuals, but the arguments on both sides have been repeated many times and there would be no point in my recounting them. It seems very clear to me that pharmacology or nanomedicine will eventually enable human physiological immortality, and that uploading will eventually allow humans to copy their minds into computers of some sort. It seems very clear to me that socioeconomic problems ensuing from widespread human life extension would be solvable via deployment of appropriate technologies e.g. overcrowding of the planet could be solved at first via digging underground and building huge skyscrapers, then later by colonizing other planets, building huge spaceships and/or uploading into virtual realities. And although I agree that much of the meaning of current human life ensues indirectly from the inevitability of death, it seems to me that humans freed from the fear of death would find new sources of meaning. All these points, though currently controversial from a mainstream point of view, seem obvious and not worth debating. But the debates over these trivial points tend to obscure the deeper issues that make the issue of immortality really interesting.

To illustrate the deeper issues I want to raise, Ill first outline a few thought-experiments regarding hypothetical scenarios that may be enabled by future technology. The general points I want to make are not tied to these particular scenarios; the scenarios are just illustrative.


FutureBen and FutureBush


The first scenario involves a future version of myself FutureBen, lets call him who is allowed to grow, learn and change freely as he wishes. Suppose FutureBen lives ten billion years and increases his intelligence by a factor of ninety-seven quintillion. His human body was shed after a few thousand years of life and hes placed the episodic memories of his first century of life (the part that took place in humanly-embodied form) in a very-rarely-accessed portion of his memory, since its really not very interesting compared to some of the things that have happened to him since.

Now lets suppose President George W. Bush has also spawned a future version of himself FutureBush. And suppose that FutureBen and FutureBush made friends in their eight billionth year and decided to link their lives together in a kind of posthuman mind-partnership. I submit that, after a billion years of collaborative, mutually-coupled growth and change, it may be rather difficult to distinguish FutureBen from FutureBush. Perhaps they have even exchanged ancient episodic memories, so that each of them has complete first-person memories of the other ones life. They may be using the same black holes in the same galactic cores as their wormhole-coupled quantum-gravity cognitive processors. FutureBen and FutureBush may be an awful lot like each other -- and very, very little like Ben Goertzel or George W. Bush from 1985, 2005 or 2035.

The question is: What difference does it make that FutureBen happened to evolve out of Ben Goertzel instead of George W. Bush, PeeWee Herman, or for that matter, one of 2005-Bens guinea pigs Coffee or Tea? It surely doesnt matter much to FutureBen. If I, 2005 Ben Goertzel, am simply going to serve as the initial state for a completely different sort of being, then in what sense am I really becoming immortal? Why not just let myself die, and then let other sorts of beings comparable to FutureBen and FutureBush take my place? Or why not, for example, die and let my children take my place, and let their children take their place, eventually after N generations resulting in completely different sorts of beings?

One possible answer is that this is not really immortality for Ben Goertzel of 2005. The difficult of this answer however is: Where do you draw the line? 2005-Ben is very different in many ways from 1985-Ben, and more so from 1970-Ben (who was 3 years old). Is it the continuity of the physical body thats critical? Its easy to make counterarguments to that, as my next hypothetical scenario will illustrate. Is there some critical threshold of change, beyond which selfness is not preserved? Is there some special emergent self-pattern which exists in all the human Bens mentioned above (emerging in different ways from the differently mature Bens, but still maintaining its own integrity), but is lost in SuperBen? I think the latter is fairly close to the truth there is an emergent self-pattern spanning all these human Bens which is not there in the hypothesized far-future SuperBen. The question then is: What is this emergent self-pattern? How real is it? Why is it important? These are critical questions that I will return to a little later.

Another possible answer to the FutureBen question is that this scenario is real immortality for 2005-Ben, and that there is some sort of value in the continuity of consciousness between 2005-Ben and FutureBen. In this view the immortality lies in the process of continuous awareness, even if this includes continuous radical growth and change. Continuity of awareness is posited as a primary value, right along with awareness and life itself. This is a philosophically respectable view, but it gives rise to further subtle questions. What is this continuity-of-consciousness and why it is important?


The Philosophical Significance of Uploading


Following up on the prior thought-experiment, I will now introduce some additional hypothetical scenarios, intended to highlight the philosophical subtleties associated with various uploading techniques. These scenarios get directly at the issue of continuity of consciousness raised at the end of the prior section. Ill define a number of different NearFutureBens (NFBens), and the question is which ones have a greater claim to Ben-ness.

NFBen1 is produced via recording complete information about the physical parameters of all particles inside Ben Goertzel at a particular point in time, storing this information in a database, then completely annihilating Ben Goertzel and then, 666 hours later, re-creating an exact copy of the previously annihilated Ben Goertzel from the database records.

NFBen2 is produced via making the same kind of recording and re-creation, but doing the re-creation 10 microseconds after the annihilation, rather than 666 years.

NFBen3 is produced the same way but with a delay of 3 femtoseconds.

NFBen4 thru NFBen7 are produced like NFBen1 thru NFBen3, but the reconstruction takes place inside a computer rather than in physical reality. These Bens are software, though they may feel like they have physical bodies, due to having the option to cruise around in Ben-like bodies in an Earth-like virtual reality. When embedded in the virtual reality, they feel like physical Bens, but they know theyre just software.

NFBen 8 thru NFBen10 are produced like NFBen1 thru NFBen3, but the reconstruction takes place differently: Bens physical body is re-created correctly particle by particle, but Bens brain is replaced by an Asimov-style positronic brain or a digital computer that contains all Bens memories and realizes Bens thoughts and feelings exactly in spite of having a different physical substrate.

Next, imagine variant NFBen11, who is an exact particle by particle replica of regular old Ben, but with one difference: the particles from the original Ben are gradually transplanted into him. First NFBen11 is created by the same method as NFBen3, then one by one the actual cells from the original Ben are exchanged with the cells in NFBen11, until eventually all the original Bens cells are in NFBen11, and all the original NFBen11s cells are in what used to be the original Ben.

All of these NearFutureBens will feel like they are Ben they will have Bens memories and Bens self and will feel like their consciousness is continuous with Bens. They will have as much right to feel like Ben as I, writing these words, have to feel that I am the same Ben who went to sleep last night. I went to sleep, disappeared, and then woke up in the morning a new person, with a feeling of having the same self as the guy who went to sleep in my bed last night, and a feeling of having a sort of temporarily interrupted continuity of consciousness with that guy.

One can argue that all these NFBens really are Ben. Or one can argue that some of them are just new people who feel like theyre Ben. My sympathy is strongly with the former position. The distinction between the Bens who look and feel and think and act exactly like Ben, and the Bens who actually are Ben, feels to me like a mystical distinction-without-a-difference. If this is accepted, then what it means is obvious: Ben is uniquely identifiable via a certain a pattern of arrangement. Ben is not uniquely identifiable via a particular collection of particles, nor even necessarily by a pattern of arrangement of particles he is uniquely identifiable via a pattern of arrangement that may emerge from particles or bits or potentially anything else.

Note that Im not committing to a completely reductionist view of the mind here. I tend to think there are certain aspects of subjective experience that arent well-captured by the scientific, reductionist perspective. I wouldnt want to quite say that Ben is a pattern of arrangement. But I would say that from the perspective of looking at various physical systems and deciding which ones are Ben or not, the pattern of arrangement is all that matters. The subjective view, from inside Ben, is at least in part another story but weve already posited that, in these scenarios, all these NearFutureBens subjectively feel just like Ben.


Self, Continuity of Consciousness, and Other Illusions


So what does immortality mean, really?

One case is absolutely clear: If a person maintains their human body forever, and doesnt alter their ways of thinking and feeling too much, then they will live forever in the same sense that a person now lives 60 or 75 or 90 years or whatever. This doesnt solve any of the philosophical puzzles, however, it just defers them to commonsense.

I think it is worthwhile to question the meaning of the commonsensical sense in which a person now lives 60 or 75 or 90 years or whatever. We change immensely over our lifetime, and we disappear nearly every night and reappear in the morning with what justification do we say that its the same person?

I do believe there is some continuity of structure there I have many traits in common with my 1970 self, and there are in particular many aspects of my self-model that are still there after all these years. At a high level of organization, Ben is still Ben, even though the particular memories and ideas out of which this high-level organization emerges have changed a lot. And this high-level organization is linked in with a bunch of physical and emotional peculiarities that havent changed over the years. There are many continuously existing patterns there, unlike the Ben vs. FutureBen contrast made above.

There is a lot of neuropsychological research showing that the self is in a strong sense an illusion much like its sister illusion, free will. Thomas Metzingers recent book Being No One (2003) makes this point in an excellently detailed way. The human minds image of itself what Metzinger calls the phenomenal self is in fact a construct that the human mind creates in order to better understand and control itself, its not a real thing. Various neuropsychological disorders may lead to bizarre dysfunctions in self-image and self-understanding. And there are valid reasons to speculate that a superhuman mind be it an AI or a human with tremendously augmented intelligence might not possess this same illusion. Rather than needing to construct for itself a story of a unified self entity controlling it, a more intelligent and introspective mind might simply perceive itself as the largely heterogenous collection of patterns and subsystems that it is. In this sense, individuality might not survive the transcendence of minds beyond the human condition.

But, illusory or not, the patterns of my human self-model have largely persisted in me since early childhood and in that sense I do have some persistent existence, even if this I is really an illusory phenomenal self a la Metzinger.

Next, in addition to the continuity of structure, there is a perceived continuity of consciousness. I feel like Im participating in a largely continuous stream of thought and feeling from one minute to the next, and when I wake up in the morning I often (not always) feel like Im resuming the stream of thought and feeling from the night before. Sometime this continuity is quite vivid as when I fell asleep thinking about some problem, and Im still thinking about it when I wake up. Other times the perceived continuity is hardly there at all, as when Im traveling and I wake up in a hotel room and have a hard time remembering where I am or how I got there, until I fully re-emerge into consciousness.

My contention is that, just like the phenomenal self, the continuity of awareness is also a psychologically-constructed illusion. I have a memory of my prior thoughts and feelings, and so I construct within myself a story of continuous flowing from these prior thoughts and feelings to my current ones. But this process is not unlike how I construct within myself a story of a whole self rather than a disparate and multi-faceted population of mental and emotional processes; and, to digress slightly, its not that different from how I construct within myself a story about free will, telling myself that I consciously and rationally control my actions when in fact its usually the case that my conscious rationalizations follow the unconsciously-determined decisions the rest of my brain has made (Goertzel, 2004).

If a person wants to preserve their continuity of consciousness, and their internal self-model, thats fine its a valid value judgment. But they should make this value judgment based on the understanding that these things are not real theyre psychologically constructed illusions, that our brains have come to make through some combination of evolutionary utility-seeking and self-organizational pattern formation. It may be that an individual decides these illusions, like the illusion of free will, lie at the essence of humanity, and are worthy of preservation as a fundamental core value.

On the other hand, its equally valid to judge that the fundamental value lies in overcoming these illusions of self, will and continuity and seeing that they dont have any true reality. Perhaps the overcoming of these illusions is the right path toward discovering a better way to exist the human condition having many well-known and well-documented flaws. This is the direction in which Zen Buddhism and other mystical traditions point (Austin, 1998). Science has discovered the illusory nature of free will, self and continuity of consciousness only recently, but in the domain of wisdom traditions, all this is quite old news.


The Future of Mind


One can perceive the preservation unto eternity of the human illusions of free will, self and continuity of consciousness as a good thing or one can view it as a burden, like the preservation unto eternity of stomachaches and bad tempers and pimples. An equally valid, alternate perspective holds that human-style individual minds, ridden with illusions as they are, are merely an intermediary phase on the way to the development of really interesting cognitive dynamics.

Among humans, illusions like will, self and consciousness-continuity are just about inevitably tied in with intelligence. Highly rigorous long-term routines like Zen meditation practice are able to whittle away the illusions, but they seem to have other costs I dont know of any Zen masters who make interesting contributions to science or mathematics, for example. Among humans, the reduction of these illusions on a practical day-to-day basis seems to require so much effort as to absorb almost the entire organism to the exclusion of all else. Yet the same will not necessarily be the case for superhuman AIs, or enhanced human uploads, or posthuman humans with radical brain improvements. These minds may be able to carry out advanced intellectual activity without adopting the illusions that are built into the human mind courtesy of our evolved brains.

A mind without the illusions of self, free will or continuity of consciousness might not look much like a mind as we currently conceive it it would be more of a complex, creative, dynamical system of inter-creating patterns. FutureBen and FutureBush, as envisioned above, are actually fairly unadventurous as prognostications of the future of mind as described above, theyre still individuals, with individual identities and histories; but its not at all clear that this is what the future holds in store. If ones value system favors general values like freedom, growth and joy (Goertzel, 2004a), rather than primarily valuing humanity as such, such a posthuman relatively-illusion-free mind may be considered superior to human minds and the prospect of immortality in human form may appear like a kind of second-rate booby prize.


Why Immortality?


All these issues center around one key philosophical point: What is the goal of immortality? What is the goal of avoiding involuntary death? Is it to keep human life as we know it around forever? That is a valid, respectable, non-idiotic goal. Or is it to keep the process of growth alive and flourishing beyond the scope painfully and arbitrarily imposed on it by the end of the human life?

Human life as it exists now is not a constant, it's an ongoing growth process; and for those who want it to be, human life beyond the current maximum lifespan and beyond the traditional scope of humanity will still be a process of growth, change and learning. Fear of death will largely be replaced by more interesting issues like the merit of individuality and consciousness in its various forms -- and other issues we can't come close to foreseeing yet.


It may be that, when some of us live long enough and become smart enough, we decide that maintaining individuality and the other human illusions unto eternity isn't interesting, and it's better to merge into a larger posthuman intelligent dynamical-pattern-system. And it may be that others of us find that individuality still seems interesting forever. Resource wars between superhuman post-individuals and human individuals cant be ruled out, but nor can they be confidently forecast -- since there will likely so many resources available at the posthuman stage, and diversity may still seem like an interesting value to superhuman post-individuals (so why not let the retro human immortal individuals stick around and mind their own business?).

These issues are fairly hard to feel out right now, stuck as we are in this human form with its limited capacity for experience, intelligence and communication. For me, the quest for radical life extension is largely about staying around long enough, and growing enough, to find out more about intriguing (philosophically, scientifically and personally fundamental) issues like these.

Acknowledgements. This essay owes a great deal to conversations with various individuals, including most of all Bruce Klein, but also Izabela Goertzel, Martine Rothblatt, Moshe Looks, Jeff Medina, and the members of the DC Future Salon.