Athena Andreadis’ article in h+ about the transhumanist fear of biology in general and their underestimation of just how complex and powerful biological systems is deliciously blunt:
And it came to me in a flash that many transhumanists are uncomfortable with biology and would rather bypass it altogether for two reasons, each exemplified by these sentences. The first is that biological systems are squishy — they exude blood, sweat and tears, which are deemed proper only for women and weaklings. The second is that, unlike silicon systems, biological software is inseparable from hardware. And therein lies the major stumbling block to personal immortality.
After an interesting start, Andreadis wanders off into the territory of questioning other aspects of immortality and makes more than a few errors in logic. To more fully consider her argument, we need to understand how the mind/consciousness can be understood in relation to the brain/body.
Among futurists, there seem to be three options for how a person’s consciousness exists in relation to the physical mind.
- Software: A person’s active consciousness, personality, and memories can be downloaded onto a different substrate, such as a computer hard-drive or other digital memory source.
- Hardware: A person’s active consciousness, personality, and memories reside in the brain’s physical substrate of neurons. The mind is emergent from this organic matrix and inseparable.
- Embodied: A person’s active consciousness, personality, and memories reside in a brain that is interwoven and inextricable from the body in which it resides. When you lose a hand, it’s not just your body that changes, you as a person change.
Andreadis discounts option one as an impossibility or, if anything, a process that results in a mental clone that would become different the moment it attained consciousness. I agree with her, if “mind uploading/downloading” is possible at all, in any way, is not a method for immortality. The rest of her article moves between interpretations two and three, using one or the other as it fits her argument. Mostly that’s fine, for her purposes hardware and embodiment are generally the same.
The problem with Andreadis’ article is that this is actually an argument against immortality, not, as it seems initially, an analysis of the complexities of keeping the mind alive indefinitely. Most frustrating is Andreadis’ reliance on the flaw that doesn’t assume “perfect method,” when discussing the ethics of an argument. When she critiques constructions of the brain “in silico” that is, in an artificial body or with artificial neurons, there might be a loss of “pingbacks” and/or “empathy.” This argument is equivalent to saying, “manned flight won’t work because what if we build a plane with wings that fall off or aileron cables made of silly putty?” It presumes a level of technological ineptitude that is ridiculous for ethical considerations. When arguing the ethics you do not say, “Thing X is unethical because a broken or incomplete version of thing X would cause problems Y and Z.” That isn’t an argument, it’s a technique and a distraction.
Even more frustrating, and particularly disappointing from Andreadis, who is eyeballs-deep in transhumanist lit, is her final paragraph, which repeats tropes of the anti-immortalists that have been readily rebutted.
Instead of refuting or critiquing the rest of Andreadis’ argument, I’d just like to forward my own. For a moment, let’s forget all the other enhancements and modifications transhumanists and technoprogressives support and posit, and instead just consider keeping the mind healthy and alive indefinitely. Based on the current trends in science, I largely think that the human body can be maintained indefinitely through purely organic/biological means. The problem is aging, and Aubrey de Grey has me convinced we can take steps to fix or at least slow those problems. Furthermore, I believe progress will be so slow in that field that societal norms and our relationship with life expectancy will adjust to prevent the societal upheaval or existential ennui Andreadis fears.
As for the hardware/embodiment issue, I would still posit that mind transplantation is possible if three criterion are met. If any one of these is impossible, I would argue ethical brain transplantation is impossible.
- A brain can be severed from one body, taken out, and placed into another (either organic or artificial) without any degradation in brain matter and with all connections necessary for immediate function (blood circulation, involuntary muscle control, immuno-suppression) working.
- Embodiment happens slowly in a controlled environment. Senses would have to be eased back “on,” control of the body would have to occur in stages, like recovering from paralysis. I imagine body transplantation would happen this way automatically, given the complexity of the re-wiring going on, but if not, it would probably need to be induced.
- There are extant methods to ensure the legal personhood of a transplanted mind does not alter from body to body. Rights stem from the consciousness and personhood of the mind, not the physical substrate or its body.
In addition to these, there are the obvious requirements of consent on behalf of the transplantee and that the new body is not the result of some other crime (really Athena? de facto murder? No vat-grown or robotic bodies came to you as a possibility?). Number two is likely to be the most overlooked, but Andreadis’ emphasis of the mind’s link to the body is correct. A contiguous consciousness is already adapted to a changing body (aging, injury, exercise, operations, etc), but something as traumatic as a brain transplant would be, well, something with which a mind might need a bit more time.
But ideally, the transplant wouldn’t be necessary, because we’d be able to maintain our bodies as they are, preventing aging internally through a variety of biological modifications to the wetware of the human being, from the DNA up.
Bioethics is controversial.
No one endorses the ideas or concepts explored here, not even me.
You will develop a strong opinion about something you find here. I want to hear it. Philosophy is a conversation.
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