A question that has come up in a couple of recent conversations: Is there any hope within a scientific or philosophical view of reality for immortality, something like an afterlife that is typically promised in the major religions?
The most popular hope these days is the Technological Singularity, the idea that sometime soon we will create a superhuman intelligence, which will in turn create a super-superhuman intelligence, which will in turn create…, well, hopefully you get the picture. The result will be a runaway explosion in technological capabilities resulting in an ability to upload us all into a virtual environment, a technological heaven, and go on living, at least as long as the environment, or ones like it, can continue running.
An objection, one that could be made for any of the scenarios this post will discuss, is that the uploaded version wouldn’t be us. But this objection rests on the idea that there is an enduring self throughout our entire life. All the atoms in our brain get replaced by metabolic maintenance every few years. So physically, you are not the person you were five years ago, or the person you will be five years from now. So why worry about what will happen to that future you in five years? We can’t say continuity, because we lose consciousness every night. Your affinity with the you of five years ago and the you of five years from now amounts to structural similarities, that is, to information, an affinity you will share with the other selves discussed below.
But the problem with putting too much hope into mind uploading is that the Singularity is far from guaranteed to happen in our lifetime, or at all. There certainly doesn’t seem, in principle, any reason we might not eventually be able to copy minds, but “eventually” might be centuries from now.
There is speculation that life extension technologies may enable us to live longer, long enough that yet further life extension breakthroughs could extend even longer life, potentially providing a path for some people alive today to make it to the eventual technological afterlife. While conceivable, this rationale seems aspirational at best.
Could future engineers somehow construct a virtual afterlife and retro-actively upload past minds to it? A scenario that sometimes come up in science fiction, it takes pretty loose speculation to imagine how minds from the past could be retrieved. More plausibly, such a simulation might be able to provide historical reconstructions of well known people, but here the argument that it’s not really us seems to carry much more weight. These reconstructions might resemble the public version of us, but would be missing our deepest private memories and thoughts.
But maybe it’s already happened. We could already be in a simulation, and the simulation owner might be using our patterns to simulate a wide variety of scenarios. There may be several versions of us in several variants of the simulation, some of which might live much longer than others. This isn’t so much an afterlife as a side-life. Unfortunately there’s no way to know if we’re in a simulation.
Stepping outside of speculative technological solutions, the universe may be infinite. If so, then every combination of atoms may eventually repeat itself, along with every variation more or less similar to that combination. There would be an infinite number of regions identical to our observable universe, and an infinite number of them with every possible variation. Importantly for this discussion, there would be an infinite number of you out there, living every variation of your life.
Along similar lines, if the many-worlds interpretation of quantum physics is true, then there are innumerable versions of you in other branches of the wave function, along with every variation of how your life might go. In both cases, these would include low probability versions, including profoundly low probability versions, versions that, despite the infinitesimal probability, somehow live until the heat death of the universe. Indeed, if either of these scenarios are true, then there are versions of the you reading this will discover it to be the case.
Another possibility are Boltzmann brains, brains that in infinite space and time, randomly form spontaneously with a full lifetime of memories, but then quickly dissolve. You can’t rule out that you’re a Boltzmann brain right now. But if space is infinite, then there are an infinite number of these brains creating every instance of your life, just scattered non-sequentially, including every variation of that life, along with ones perceiving immortal lives.
It’s important to note that these are extrapolations from scientific theories, and all are controversial. Putting too much hope in them is risky. They could be ruled out at any time by new discoveries.
If we broaden our view to metaphysics, then the hope can possibly become a bit more safe, albeit at the cost of never being empirically demonstrable. Within platonism, all abstract concepts exist. Which means an abstract concept of the state of a mind exists. Not only that, but every stage of the mind throughout its timeline in every variation of what could happen to it, exists somewhere in the platonic realm. That means that all the variations we discussed above exist in platonic space. The problem with this view is that platonic objects are usually understood to be without spatiotemporal extent and causally inert. It takes something like Max Tegmark’s mathematical universe hypothesis, a radical form of mathematical platonism, in which every platonic object is reified somewhere, for this hope to kick in.
It’s worth noting that none of these scenarios guarantee a pleasant immortality. It seems inevitable that some portion of them would be hellish.
If none of them seem plausible to you, or you don’t buy the information argument above, then I’ll mention my own philosophical views, which lean Epicurean. Death is merely non-consciousness, a state we were born out of, and visit every night.
Derek Parfit reportedly considered that the child we once were died long ago, and the you of this instant won’t exist in a few years, even with continuous evolution into an older person. To exist is to change, and to change is for the current version to cease to exist. Eventually these variations can amount to a different person. Death could be seen as just another change. The scenarios above seem to exacerbate rather than evade this reality.
Unless of course I’m missing something?