Fragment from the Source of Youth (1546) by Lukas Cranach the Elder. Courtesy Wikipedia
Immortality entered the high life. It left the realm of gods and angels
, now it is a subject of serious investments - intellectual and financial - philosophers, scientists and Silicon Valley. Several hundred people have already decided on a " cryopreservation
", as they are waiting for science to make a breakthrough and give them a second chance for life. But if we view death as a problem, what are the ethical implications of its still speculative “solutions”?
Of course, at present we have no means of achieving human immortality, and it is not clear whether they will be. But two hypothetical options still attracted the most interest and attention: the technology of rejuvenation and loading of the mind.
As a fantastic source of youth, rejuvenation
promises to repair and reverse damage at the cellular level. Gerontologists, such as Aubrey de Gray, argue that aging is a disease that we can get around by replacing or correcting our cells at regular intervals. In practice, this may mean that every few years you visit a rejuvenation clinic. Doctors would not only remove infected, cancerous or other unhealthy cells, but also encourage healthy ones to more efficiently regenerate and remove accumulated waste. This deep procedure will “bring back the clock” of your body, making you physiologically younger than your actual age. However, you will remain just as vulnerable to death from a big injury, that is, from injuries and poisonings, accidental or not, as you were before.
Rejuvenation seems to be a fairly safe solution, as it significantly expands and improves your body’s ability to take care of itself. But if you really want eternal life in a biological body, it must be very safe. You need to avoid any risk of physical harm in order to live forever, which would make you one of the most troubled people in history
Another option would be loading consciousness, your brain will be scanned and copied to a computer. This method assumes that consciousness is akin to software running on some kind of organic hard drive. What makes you yours is the amount of information stored in the brain, and therefore it should be possible to transfer yourself to another physical device or platform. Loading consciousness is a very contradictory
direction. However, let's leave aside the question of where your mind is and consider the idea that one day it will be possible to reproduce the brain in digital form.
Unlike rejuvenation, the load of consciousness
could really offer something like true immortality. Just as we are currently backing up files to external drives and cloud storage, your loaded mind can be backed up countless times and backed up in safe places, and it’s extremely unlikely that any natural or man-made disaster could destroy all your copies. .
Despite this advantage, consciousness loading is a complex ethical problem. Some philosophers, such as David Chalmers, think
that there is a possibility that your copy will be functionally identical to your old self, without any conscious experience of sensations. You would rather be a zombie than a man. Others, such as Daniel Dennett, have argued
that this is not a problem. Since you are reducible to the processes and content of your brain, a functionally identical copy — no matter on which substrate it works — will be you.
Moreover, we cannot predict what sensations the loaded mind will experience. Will they be a temporary break after the transfer or something else? What if the whole process, including your existence as a digital being, is so qualitatively different from biological existence, that you will be frightened or even paralyzed? If so, what if you cannot communicate with other people or turn yourself off? In this case, your immortality will be more like a curse than a blessing. In the end, death is not so bad, but unfortunately it will no longer be an option.
Another problem arises with the prospect of copying your loaded mind and running the copy simultaneously with the original. One of the popular positions in philosophy is that your unity
depends on having one
copy — this means that the “separation” of your personality will be equivalent to death. In general, if you are divided into two copies, then you will cease to exist like you
, dying in every sense and purpose. Some thinkers, such as Derek Parfit, have argued that, although you may not survive the separation, as long as each new version is inextricably linked to the original, you will be alive.
Which option is more ethically problematic? In our opinion, “simple” rejuvenation is likely to be a less problematic choice. Yes, the victory over death for the whole human race will greatly aggravate our existing problems of overpopulation and inequality - but problems, at least, are familiar to us. We can be sure, for example, that rejuvenation will increase the gap
between the rich and the poor and ultimately force us to take decisive measures towards the economical use of resources, limiting population growth rates, etc.
On the other hand, the loading of consciousness would open up many completely new and unfamiliar ethical issues. Loaded minds can be a radically new form of moral self-awareness
. For example, we often believe that cognitive abilities are related to the moral status of an agent (one of the reasons we endow people with a higher moral status than mosquitoes). But it is difficult to understand the cognitive abilities of minds amplified by fast computers and communicating with each other at the speed of light, as this would make them incomparably smarter than the smartest biological man. As economist Robin Hanson argued in The Age of Em
(2016), we need to find fair ways to regulate the interaction between the old and new areas and within them, that is, between people and the digital minds. Moreover, the surprisingly rapid development of digital systems means that we may have very little time to decide how to implement even the minimum rules.
What about the personal, practical implications of choosing immortality? Assuming that you have somehow fallen into a future in which rejuvenation and brain loading are available, your decision seems to depend on what
risks you are willing to take. Rejuvenation seems to be the most convenient, although it threatens to make you even more dependent on your fragile physical body. When downloading it would be much harder to destroy your mind, at least in practice, but it is unclear whether you will survive in any sense if you have been copied several times. This is a completely uncharted territory with risks far greater than what you would face in rejuvenation. Nevertheless, the prospect of liberation from our mortal chains
is undoubtedly tempting — and if it is ever possible, one way or another, many people would decide that it outweighs the dangers.
About the authorsFrancesca Minerva
- postdoc at Ghent University in Belgium.
She was a guest at the “Personal Identification and Public Policy” seminar at the Center for Existential Risk Studies in November 2016, where she gave a presentation on which this article is based.Adrian Rohrheim
is a researcher and editor of the Effective Altruism Foundation in Berlin.