The dualism of mind uploading

brain (Photo credit: TZA)

A few days ago, when I told him I thought his skepticism of mind uploading was a bit overly pessimistic, Massimo Pigliucci pointed out that mind uploading implies dualism and seemed to see this as a strike against it.  (The relevant comments are scattered on this thread at his blog.  Search for “selfaware” to find the snippets.  If you peruse it, don’t miss Disagreeable Me’s contribution.)

Normally, when we say “dualism”, meaning mind-body dualism, we’re referring to the dualism of the non-material soul as opposed to the physical body.  This is the substance dualism envisaged by philosopher Rene Descartes and many religions.

But as fellow blogger ausomeawestin pointed out to me some time ago, it’s not the only form of dualism.  Philosophers contemplate other forms such as predicate dualism and property dualism, which hold that there is only physical substance but that dualism remains a useful logical concept.  I’m not sure if what I’m about to describe counts as either predicate or property dualism, but there do seem to be similarities.

In the computer world, there is a type of dualism, although no one calls it that.  It’s the dualism between software and hardware, between logical or virtual constructs and physical ones.  The computer I’m typing this post on is a Macbook Pro.  It has a hardware existence with an Intel processor, memory, storage, etc.  But it also has a software identity, running Mac OS X and the applications I’ve installed along with copies of my data.

Being in IT, I use a lot of various devices, but the software they’re running is usually the more important part.  The software is the personality, the “soul” of the experience of using that device.  Software isn’t physical.  I can’t point to Mac OS X, or iOS, or Android, or Microsoft Windows.  Oh sure, I can point to a device running the operating system, or to the box holding the media that it came on (or at least I could before everything went to digital distribution), but none of these things I can point to actually is Mac OS X, or Windows, or Linux, or whatever your OS of choice is.

Software is a non-physical entity.  It is information, patterns, structures that exist and have effects in the world.  It can have several physical instantiations, including as magnetic encodings on a disk, as electrical signals in a cable or as WiFi radio signals when it is being downloaded, or as transistor states in a memory chip or processor when it is executing.

Teams of programmers are paid to create and maintain the operating systems, applications, and games that we use and play.  Before I switched to the dark side (known by some as management) I spent countless hours of my life creating and maintaining software applications.  I occasionally pay money to use certain ones, and companies consider software to be valuable intellectual property.

So there’s no doubt that software / hardware dualism exists in computers.  The question is, does it exist in biological brains?  Is the mind the the brain’s software?  If so, can the mind be copied and executed somewhere else?  How similar is the brain to a computer?

Broadly speaking, they both take input, process information according to programming (computers) or instinct (brains), and produce outputs.  For a computer, this input typically comes in through the keyboard, mice, and data ports.  Output comes out through the screen and data ports which may connect to peripheral devices.

In the case of the brain, it receives input through the nervous system, from senses such as sight, hearing, smell, touch, and taste.  Output comes in the form of electrical signals sent through the nervous system to muscles throughout the body.

But there are radical differences.  Computers store information in transistors that are engineered to be in one of two discrete voltage states.  These two states are interpreted as 1s and 0s, which form the backbone of digital processing.  The connections between transistors is orderly and determined by designers.  Memory is usually in a different part of the processing chips from the actual logic gates.  Everything about the computer’s design is engineered to be computable and discrete.

Brains are far messier.  They appear to store information in synapses, the connections between neurons, cells that fire electrical signals.  Synapses, which come in different types such as electrical and chemical synapses, can vary in the strength they transfer electricity, but smoothly, not in discrete states.  The brain is not a digital processor, but an analog one, and its processing is mixed with its storage areas.  There is no one central processing area of the brain.  Rather, processing is distributed throughout, although in modules dedicated to specific functions and purposes.

Most importantly for this discussion, a modern computer is architected to load different software into its memory and clear it out on demand.  Brains are not arranged this way.  A brain’s programming can be modified to some degree by what input it receives, but it has no mechanism to record a new wholesale personality or to allow one to be copied out.  Brains evolved for certain purposes, and loading or exporting a mind is not one of them.

There is no data port to copy information in or out.  Any process to copy a mind is probably going to be destructive, at least with foreseeable technology.  One prospective process is serial sectioning and imaging of the brain to record the states of all the synapses, neurons, and glial cells for use in a brain simulator or duplicated brain.  Of course, the destructive nature of this pretty much guarantees that no one will want to do it until their natural death is imminent, at least not at first.

A key question is, how much detail is needed to copy a mind with fidelity?  Is recording the connectome, the synapses and their strengths, enough to make an accurate copy of the mind?  If so, then processes such as serial sectioning might eventually be able to record a mind.  But if recording a mind accurately means going down to the arrangement of atoms, or even worse, to the subatomic level, then the idea of capturing and modelling a mind starts to look a bit hopeless.

That said, the neuroscience I’ve read talks in terms of neural circuitry, in terms of neurons and synapses.  Usually the only people I see mention atomic arrangements are those looking for a reason to be skeptical of the idea of copying a mind.  Of course, even if we don’t have to go all the way down to the atomic level to get an accurate copy, we would still have to have a far better understanding of how the brain works than we currently do to make a functional copy.

But another closely related question is, how much fidelity would we demand before we’d consider a copied mind to be the same person?  It might be possible to make a copy that is functional but not a flawless duplicate of the original.  Indeed, unless we make an identical brain, there would almost certainly be differences.  How tolerant would we be of those differences if the new mind, for the most part, had the memories and qualities of the original?

In addition to accuracy issues, who we are is defined by how our brain functions, including its flaws.  It’s easy to imagine that an uploaded mind could actually function better in some respects, but doing so would change the person.  Imagine removing a person’s “flaws” such as excitability or innate melancholy.  There are bound to be friends who would miss the exact mix that made up the original person.

Pondering all this, it’s easy to see why many people conclude that the mind is the brain, and that any talk of copying the mind is misguided.  But unless the definition of the mind does go down to the atomic level, I think copying it is a matter of neuroscience and technology.  Nature doesn’t make it easy for us, but I can’t see that it has made it impossible.

Some may regard the unavoidable differences between the original and copied minds as a crucial flaw.  But this has to be balanced against the knowledge that our mind today is different than our mind from a year ago, or ten years ago.  Indeed, someone who has been through a traumatic or moving experience may be noticeably different afterwards.  That they might be somewhat different after being uploaded or copied might be a transition event we’d learn to live with.  And if the alternative is non-existence, it’s easy to see many people opting for it.

Now, as I said the other day, I do think there is substantial room for skepticism that mind uploading will happen in twenty years along the lines often envisioned by the singularity prophets.  (Although given the unpredictable nature of technological advance, I’d be pretty cautious of making any absolutist statements on this.)

Often, the thought is that AIs will come along and take care of this for us, but AIs themselves are not going to come about solely from increasing computing power.  Their development will be as much a matter of software design as hardware.  Both AIs and mind uploading will require that we understand far more about how a mind works than we currently do.  And that may take decades or maybe even centuries.

This conclusion is often resisted by all sides in this debate.  If mind uploading can’t happen in our lifetime, then it might be more comfortable to conclude that it’s permanently impossible.  Understandably, no one is enthusiastic about being part of the last mortal generation.  But if mind uploading does happen in our lifetime, it won’t be accomplished by people who have decided that it’s impossible.

Getting back to the original question, can the mind have an existence separate from the brain?  I think it depends on how rigid or flexible we want to be in our definitions.

47 thoughts on “The dualism of mind uploading

  1. Nice article, SAP.

    I think the only thing I might disagree with is your emphasis that brains are messy. This is true, and is seized on by many as a reason to think that the brain is not a computer. But I think that this is misleading, because even a precise digital computer can be made to emulate a messy analog system.

    I know you know this already, but I think it’s an important point.


  2. The problem of uploading or copying a mind is hard. Adding enhancements to a mind would be orders of magnitude easier, and avoids all the philosophical problems. You could view Google Glass as a first (reversible) attempt at this.


      1. Yes, unless the “enhancements” have become so powerful that they can continue to function without a need for the biological brain. For example, they may have been making backup copies of memories and gradually taking over cognitive functions.


          1. I think it side-steps the original question. Storage of memories doesn’t have to use the same method as the original biological brain. The memories could be stored in digital form for example. And enhancements to cognitive functions could work completely differently. There could be systems that analyse input from the optic nerve in different ways, and then combine these results with the biological pattern recognition systems. There could be a mathematical unit that can perform complex arithmetic, a thesaurus system, and components that connects to the internet.

            I personally think that mind uploading technology will be like the flying car. In 50 years time, people will still be saying, why hasn’t mind uploading been developed yet?


          2. But the core of the person, the central instincts, desires, emotions, consciousness, would eventually have to be reproduced. I can’t see that happening by accident any more than AIs suddenly becoming sentient due to computing power. Now, maybe our enhancements will make that happen sooner rather than later, but the chief problem still remains.


          3. You’re right. It’s a very hard problem to solve. But “uploading” a mind, i.e. creating an identical synapse-by-synapse replica of a living brain is, as you say, even harder.


          4. I guess I see them as the same problem. Either way, the data processing of the core person, the synapse-by-synapse patterns, still eventually have to be reproduced, even if that core person is now at the center of an enhanced entity. If you just remove the original person from that entity, you just have memory and data processors, but no motivation or awareness, unless we’ve figured out a way to recreate it, but if it’s not the original motivations and awareness, the original person, I doubt society will see it as a win.

            But enhanced humans might solve this problem faster.


  3. Another thought provoking post.

    The trouble with the discussion is that it’s all about computation. It does not deal with awareness. This was the crucial point that Chalmers’ saw when he named the ‘hard’ problem. It must be theoretically possible that we could build an artificial brain that is capable of performing all the functions of a human brain that we can model as a computational process, or make of model of these process to upload into another processor, for this is would be a tautological achievement. The problem is awareness.

    You can assume that awareness is an artefact of computational processes, but it would be impossible to prove it, and it is a difficult idea to comprehend. .


    1. Such an artificial brain would “believe” itself to be conscious, in the sense that it would report consciousness and it would represent this belief with the digital analogs of the physical brain state that represents your belief in your own consciousness. It is my view that when you introspect, you are asking questions of yourself. You ask yourself questions such as “Do I really experience a qualia of redness?” and your brain answers back “Yes, you do”. The problem is that an artificial brain can ask itself the same questions and get the same answers.

      Q:”Am I really asking myself a question now, or am I just processing data?”
      A: “You are really asking yourself a question.”
      Q:”Am I more than a machine?”
      A: “Yes, you are more than a machine.”
      Q: “Is it conceivable that a machine could feel like this, or feel anything?”
      A: “No it isn’t”.

      If that artificial brain is not conscious, it at least has the “illusory” “belief” that it is actually conscious.

      I am pretty sure that the “illusory” “belief” of that artificial brain is pretty much the same as my belief that I am conscious, because there is no way I could tell them apart. I don’t consider consciousness to be an illusion because I consider conscious to actually be the state of being where such an “illusion” is possible.

      There is an illusion all right, but the illusion is that there is a hard problem of consciousness, in my view. The truly hard problem is the problem of intelligence, of understanding how it is that the software of the brain can lead to all the creativity and ingenuity we associate with humans, and how we might reproduce the same in silicon.

      Liked by 1 person

    2. DM gave an excellent reply on this, I think articulating perfectly the issues with the hard problem.

      I’ll just add that, whatever awareness is, I’m convinced it is data processing. I currently favor Michael Graziano’s attention schema theory, which says that awareness is the brain’s summary of its attentional state. If this theory is on the right track (it fits with a wealth of neuroscience data), then there is no fundamental limitation preventing a machine from having it.

      But the attitude that consciousness cannot be proven might have a dark side. Imagine if you have a machine insisting that it is conscious, displaying all the attitudes, capabilities, and functionality of a conscious being. It seems like it might take a pretty hard hearted person to insist it isn’t conscious. that it isn’t aware.


      1. It will never be shown that awareness is information processing. There would be no way to do it. It is not a scientific hypothesis, I’d say that the hard problem is a lot more profound than it is being credit for here. If it could be solved by reducing awareness to computation it would have been solved long ago, since in the sciences almost everybody wants this solution to work.


        1. It’s not a scientific hypothesis. It is a philosophical position. I agree that it can never be shown that awareness is information processing, but for that matter it will never be shown to be anything else is, because from an objective frame of reference awareness simply doesn’t exist. Awareness only exists from the point of view of the subject.


          1. Everything only exists from the pov of the subject. This is why solipsism is unfalsifiable. So awareness is no different from any other phenomenon in this respect. We can imagine that it is just computation or we can imagine it isn’t. Unfortunately imagining doesn’t get the baby bathed.


          2. Consciousness is unlike other phenomena, in that it is uniquely subjective. All subjects will typically agree that an object such as a tree exists because they perceive it via their senses.

            However consciousness is only perceived by the subject. If I believe that you are conscious it is not because I perceive your consciousness through my senses but only because I think it is most reasonable to assume you are an entity similar to myself, and I perceive my own consciousness. No experiment I could ever do could distinguish between you being conscious and you being an automaton.

            And so, from my perspective, it seems possible that you are an unconscious automaton. I don’t think I can doubt the existence of a tree in the same way, because even if the tree is not real it at least exists as an illusion – some phenomenon which causes me to perceive a tree as real. I have no such direct illusion of your consciousness.


          3. DM – This is a muddle. Trees are perceived by subjects. No subject, no tree. The fact that lots of subjects see the tree changes nothing. And consciousness, according to science, is not perceived by the subject, it is the subject. You’re right, you cannot know whether I am conscious. You cannot know whether a rock is conscious. The only consciousness you can study is your own. Solipsism unfalsifiable.

            Your opinion about trees is not relevant. You cannot overcome Cartesian doubt by stating that trees are real in your opinion. You may not doubt their reality, but that is because you have not formed your view from the ground up but taken their reality as an axiom.


          4. Hi guymax,

            I don’t think you understand my argument.

            I am not asserting that trees are real or indeed that trees are conscious. I am only asserting that there is a difference between how we perceive trees as real and how we infer that other people are conscious. Science can only study things we can perceive, either directly e.g. trees or indirectly e.g. electrons.

            This is why I think consciousness is a philosophical and not a scientific problem, because we cannot perceive the consciousness of other people either directly or indirectly.


          5. My apologies DM. I completely agree with what you say here.

            I was rude. More apologies. It is when you started saying things like ‘consciousness is perceived by the subject’ that I felt the issues were becoming a little confused. This is not perception. We cannot simply assume that consciousness and the subject are different things. But I see your wider point.

            The problem of consciousness arises partly because the only thing that can ‘perceive’ consciousness is consciousness. The philosophical problem is how to end the endless regress of self-awareness that this implies. Higher-order thoughts theories only postpose the problem. As you say, it Is a problem that physics is powerless to address.

            As far as I know, only mysticism addresses it. Hence elsewhere it is found to be a ‘hard’ problem.


          6. No worries, guymax. Comment threads are quite a bad way of communicating these kinds of ideas, in my view. I misunderstand things all the time.

            I too think that metaphysics (or philosophy at any rate) can resolve the hard problem. I don’t see how mysticism is required, however. I think the kind of approach I have sketched works just fine.

            I say this while quite aware that I am probably interpreting mysticism differently from how you do. Mysticism has for me always had connotations of the supernatural, emphasising intuition and “poetic thinking”, de-emphasizing analysis and being satisfied with wonder and mystery without seeking to probe deeper. I feel confident that you would regard this as a misunderstanding of mysticism.

            It could be that if I understood your mysticism I would find it to be compatible with my own views. I am probably not sufficiently interested right now to go out and buy a bunch of Buddhist texts, but if you could briefly explain what you mean by mysticism or give me a convenient brief online reference I would love to know more.


          7. Yes, I’m coming round to the idea that comments sections are not good places for difficult discussions. I’m going do less commenting from now on.

            If you can solve the hard problem in metaphysics then you’ll know why mysticism is required. It is the only theory not considered by those who find the problem hard, which is a pretty blatant clue to where the solution lies.

            It is an error to think that mysticism is not about analysis. I wouldn’t say this if it could not be demonstrated. It is just that it is about more than this. Analysis is a proof of its doctrine, as this has been shown by various people including myself. This has nothing to do with opinions and preferences, or even speculation. It’s just about doing the sums.

            If you really are keen to read something about this then this essay brings all the issues together – – Also on my page at philpapers is ‘The Metaphysics of Consciousness’.- which is a lot shorter and simpler.

            Don’t feel obliged. Spam is always annoying. Otherwise I could mention many writers, but none that condense the issues in the way I attempted to do in that first essay. As far as books go, I’d recommend Bradley’s ‘Appearance and Reality’ for another proof of the result of metaphysics and a solution for the hard problem.


        2. I’ll agree that those who are troubled by the hard problem will probably never be satisfied that it is solved. Objective experience can never add up intuitively to our internal experience. Although I do wonder how a hard problem person would react to an apparently conscious machine.


          1. I would rather say that those who are troubled by the hard problem have not yet seen the solution. As for your scenario, not to worry, we can never know if some other person or machine is conscious. A human being is an ‘apparently conscious’ machine. This is the ‘other minds’ problem.


          2. I like your perspective on machine consciousness, but it seems to firmly put the hard question into the realm of unresolvable metaphysics. (Yeah, I know I’m stating the obvious 🙂 )


          3. You may not be stating the obvious, but you are certainly stating what a lot of people believe. I do share this belief, however, and spend my time proposing that there is a solution for consciousness and that it can be found in metaphysics. Most people, by saying that the problem is metaphysical, mean that it is intractable. When I say that it is metaphysical, I mean that the solution can be found in metaphysics.

            It is only when we cannot solve metaphysics that consciousness becomes a hard problem, along with all the others. We have to solve the problem at the level of first principles or not at all. This is not a matter of opinion. It is demonstrable. It is just that nobody seems interested.

            There are no ‘hard’ problems in Nagarjuna’s metaphysics. I see it as a self-inflicted problem caused by a failure to take mysticism seriously. We have then ruled out the only possible solution.


          4. That’s fine. But being metaphysics, people can come to different conclusions about it, and we can’t test any of those conclusions, can’t prove one right and the others wrong. Given that, it might simply be a matter of adhering to the one you find most pleasing.


          5. This is a common view of metaphysics, but demonstrably incorrect. Nearly everybody comes to the same conclusion in metaphysics. It is on the interpretation of its results that people differ, not on the results.; Metaphysics is not post-modernism.

            I can think of very few philosophers who do not reach the inevitable conclusion of metaphysical analysis. They vary only in their reaction. This conclusion is reached by Carnap, Ayer, Russell, Nagarjuna, Bradley, Chalmers, Dennett, Kant. Hegel, Schopenhaeur and uncountable others. We all reach it if we keep going long enough. There is no possibility of adhering to the view we find most pleasing’. Metaphysics only produces the one result, and very few philosophers have ever argued with it. .

            . .


          6. The result can be stated in various ways. Consider this, many people complain that metaphysics is useless since it does not produce a positive result. That is to say, it does not endorse any partial theory of the universe. It proves, rather, that all theories for which the universe is this as opposed to that give rise to contradictions and are thus logically absurd. This is the reason why Russell, Carnap, Rand, Dennett, Dawkins, Tyson and these days a great many professional philosophers and scientists dismiss philosophy as being a waste their time.

            So far so good. Nobody could argue with the above paragraph. The failure of academic metaphysics is there for all to see. The hard problem is just one of many metaphysical problems that have proved intractable for millennia.

            So, there is no doubt that metaphysics does not produce a positive result. It is a completely secure result.

            In the West, in general, this result is viewed as some kind of mysterious embargo on what we are allowed to know about the universe. In mysticism it is regarded as incontrovertible evidence of what it true about the universe.

            The result of metaphysics is well-known and rarely disputed. It is left up to us as individuals to decide whether it proves that philosophy is useless or that Buddhist doctrine is true.
            Most professional philosophers would hardly pause for thought at this point, which is the reason why our university philosophy is so utterly useless and just goes round and round in circles.

            The only position that metaphysics endorses is a neutral one, as endorsed by mysticism. This translates into a global compatibilism, and this is one reason why the perennial philosophy is known as the ‘doctrine of the mean’. It is in agreement with the results of metaphysics, and gives rise to no terminal metaphysical problems.

            How it is possible for very few people to know this is a question that intrigues me. I think maybe that mysticism has been collateral damage in the phony war between science and religion. It’s all there in the literature, but apparently not by the time it’s been sanitized for philosophy students, who are being betrayed by the professors in my opinion.


          7. Buddhism’s Middle Way doctrine would be my preferred example, since it may be the expression of this philosophy that is the easiest to study from the outside. But it appears under many names. This metaphysical position is deemed heretical in ‘western’ academic philosophy, and is rarely studied, which makes its failure to make progress evidence for the plausibility of this position.

            It is the perennial philosophy. What some people would call ‘true religion’ and what others would argue is not a religion at all but a philosophy or worldview. This states that all distinctions are emergent such that by reduction Reality would be a unity, or ‘all in all’. In this case. all positive metaphysical positions would be false and the result of metaphysics would be just what we would predict it to be. Not a problem in sight. .

            If you examine this line of thought you may see that it is profoundly innocent and simple. Metaphysics refutes all but one theory, and if that one theory turns out to be the metaphysical scheme of the perennial philosophy then so be it. Metaphysics is sorted. It is only when we start wriggling on the hook that things need to get particularly complicated.

            And, of course, it is precisely the simplicity of this solution that can make it seems so implausible to those who believe that philosophy must be complicated to be any good, and so easy to miss. Well, that and the fact that the implications for the universe are mind-boggling. .


          8. Thanks for the explanation! Unfortunately my knowledge of Buddhism comes from comparative religion summaries, and Wikipedia, which I suspect doesn’t do justice to things like the Middle Way. Maybe at some point I’ll have time to dive in deeper.


  4. guymax, one of the problems with the Middle Way is that it seems to have very little explanatory or predictive power. Consciousness just is. The denial that it’s a computational process means that if a self-aware AI were built, you’d just say, ‘”Oh it appears to be self aware, but it isn’t really.”

    No empirical fact could ever change your mind. The whole thing seems to be derived from ancient religious ideas about reincarnation. There is no reference to biology or science.

    The empirical observation that you need a physical brain to experience consciousness doesn’t seem to be part of the theory. To me, this is very strongly suggestive (to say the least) that the brain creates consciousness and that it’s some kind of very complex computational process.


    1. You have a very strange and unusual view Steve. I wonder how you arrive at it. You say, ‘no empirical fact could change my mind’. That is clearly an insult and I see no point in engaging with it. I also cannot understand how you can have discovered so little about Buddhism when there is so much information online. So, sorry, but I think you illustrate my earlier point, that it is not the complexity or difficulty of the problem of consciousness that makes it a problem, but issues around temperament and prejudice.

      If you have a look into the doctrine I’m advocating you’ll soon see that your objections are a misunderstanding.


      1. Sorry if I have inadvertently caused any offence. I am simply stating the case as I see it and not making any personal remarks. “You” wasn’t intended to mean you personally. I am actually quite familiar with the idea and yet I still have my objections and so your last sentence is factually incorrect.


        1. When you say to someone that empirical evidence would make no difference to their opinions, then you might as well call them an idiot and have done with it. What kind of reaction did you expect? Your comment betrays much about your approach to scholarship.

          When you say, “The whole thing seems to be derived from ancient religious ideas about reincarnation”, you reveal that you have never examined these issues. That’s fine, but wading in with objections is not a good idea under the circumstances.

          This may seem rude and blunt. Perhaps it is. I am tired of answering objections from people who cannot be bothered to examine the facts, and very tired of statements claiming that my view is incorrect that have no argument or evidence to support them.

          Do you not see that to think that you can turn around and dismiss Buddhist doctrine as superstition with a waive of your hand, thus the entire perennial philosophy, is hubris and arrogance on the grandest of scales? You are calling about a few billion people idiots all at the same time. Strange that you are so much cleverer than all of them.

          Simply put, if you do see the predictive and explanatory power of Nagarjuna’s theory of emptiness and doctrine of two truths then you do not know it. If you have an objection please make it. If you have an opinion you’re welcome to it.

          If you’d like a non-irritable discussion then I’m up for it, but it would require more rigour and less bluster.


          1. guymax,
            I’m pretty sure Steve meant no insult or disrespect. I very much welcome your views, and I very much appreciate your passion, but I’d ask that you perhaps dial it back a bit. Let’s all stay friends and have fun with these discussions.


          2. No problem. You’re quite right to point out that I lost it for a moment. The disrespect was obviously intended, but that’s no excuse.


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