Sunday, May 11, 2008

Versions of Immortality

In my general musings about science fiction substituting as religion (for some people at least) and the social implications of that substitution, I thought that the offer of the hope of temporal immortality might be a big item. On further thought I realized that this isn’t the case. People, or at least the Americans of my experience, are so hungry for any hope of a loophole on death that they glom onto anything that seems like it offers said hope, even if they are conventionally religious and the hope goes against that religion.

At least that is my interpretation of such oddities as the “weight of the soul” idea (21 grams?), which lots of people seem to buy, even those who profess to believe in the “immaterial soul.” Still, maybe people who believe that something immaterial nonetheless has weight are merely ignorant of what “immaterial” means.

In any case, you don’t have to be a science fiction fan to hope for “scientific immortality” though I suspect it helps.

One of the current magic wands, The Singularity, is substantially science fiction-y. As nearly as I can tell, this is the idea that we’ll soon have artificial intelligence and that said intelligence will be able to evolve exponentially to higher and higher intelligences, and at some point said AIs will become indistinguishable from God, even down to the part about loving each and every one of us so much that He, She, or It will grant us physical immortality. Or maybe we get mental immortality, by uploading each of our minds/souls into the Great AI, to dwell in the presence of the Lord forever, amen.

Apparently I’m not much of a fan of The Singularity.

Of course, the upload/download thing has been around for quite a while (Tron, anyone?). It’s an extension of an older idea, that Everything Is Information. I once had an immortalist on the Compuserve Science Forum try to convince me that the information contained in my brain is important (which I certainly believe), so important that it constitutes my essence (which I don’t buy for a minute). Yes, without my memories I’m not me anymore, but putting my memories into some other brain doesn’t make him me, not even if it’s my genetically identical clone. It just means there’s two guys walking around thinking they are me, which I don’t believe is the same thing, and neither would they, I’ll bet.

The Pop Culture version of immortality is that our souls are made of some sort of Special Matter. We know that it’s matter because it has weight (see above), is immortal (which, in actuality, matter more-or-less is and spirits aren’t, nearly as I can tell), and can give you a body image even without a body wrapped around it. In other words, a ghost made out of ectoplasm, an astral projection, a hoodoo of some sort. When physicists go off into these nether realms, they start talking about the “physical basis of consciousness” and try to conjure up special particles, special physics, or paraphysics. Going back a ways, you get physicists who are interested in parapsychology.

J. B. Rhine, who kicked off the whole parapsychology movement, was pretty specific about his aims. He believed that it should be possible to directly perceive God. Of course, if there were some aspect of the mind that was not part of physiology and beyond conventional physics, then all the wonders of the immortal soul would be real, even if not necessarily concrete.

John W. Campbell bought it hook, line, and plot device, so we had a couple of decades worth of psi stories, whose tropes are part and parcel of science fiction, so well established that you really don’t even need to explain them any more. Though they are déclassé in the “cutting edge” part of SF, they are well represented in mass media SF, and will no doubt outlive us all.

Later we had cryonics, the Disney version of the Egyptian afterlife, as it were. That Uncle Walt is in cryonic suspension is an urban legend engendered by the coincidence that there was publicity for cryonics on the same day Disney died, and some reporters covered both stories, with speculative results. After people began to realize just how much damage a frozen corpse had sustained, nanomachines came to the rescue, at least fictionally. For all I know there’s a nanotechnology story that has someone resurrecting Egyptian mummies. Or maybe there will be soon. My favorite nanotech story was the one where Gregor Samsa wakes up one day to discover himself transformed into a giant jelly donut.

I remember a story, by del Rey I think, that begins with the observation that every ghost story, even a horror story, is a bit hopeful, since if the ghost survives after death, then that is evidence that death isn’t the end. As I recall, the story then specifically torpedoes that hopefulness, but most ghost stories do indeed fulfill that purpose, to provide just a little more confirmation that death might not be the end to your own personal viewpoint.

Science, of course, has powerful mojo, and people generally would like to appropriate that mojo for their own ends, including the “be not afraid” part of religion. The crassest kind of comfort is the kind that says that what you’re afraid of doesn’t exist, in this case that death is somehow contingent, that there are loopholes (just like for taxes!), and all will be taken care of because someone who is all powerful is watching out for you.

For my own part, I remember being struck by a line in an F&SF story many years ago. One character asks another (who, if memory serves was the Devil), what would happen to his soul when he died. The Devil answered, “What happens to the information in a book when you burn the book?”

Years later, at the memorial service for my first sensei, someone remarked, “In some of the Zen traditions, the soul is a candle flame; it doesn’t go anywhere when it goes out. But one flame can light many others while it lives.”

If you spend all your efforts in trying to keep the one candle lit, you might not be lighting the other candles. That, ultimately, is the danger of promises of immortality, that you spend so much of your life trying to compensate for your own fear of death that you fail to expend effort on living your own life, whatever that may mean to you.

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Blogger said...

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