For the previous post in this series, click here.
If you’ve read the second post in my sci-fi example of worldbuilding (to which I’ll likely return in the near future) or my highly-critical post of a certain brand of materialist science, you know that I’m highly skeptical of ideas about the “Singularity” and particulary prophecy about the future potential of uploading minds into computers to achieve digital immortality. Yesterday, as I binge-watched the released episodes of the second season of Westworld with some friends, I was reminded of this issue (though, if you’re as interested in both technology and sci-fi as much as I am, it’s an idea that’s never too far from hand). I think also of Altered Carbon (both the book and the Netflix show, but especially the book, to which I’ll return shortly).
For a short recap, here are my condensed criticisms of mind uploading as touted by Ray Kurtzweil and others.
First, we simply do not understand consciousness well enough to make such far-fetched claims with anything but wild speculation. The Kurtzweil paradigm assumes a materialist basis–that the mind is merely an emergent function of its underlying physical parts (i.e. the brain). This approach allows us to assume that replicating the (arguably) underlying material components of consciousness will lead to a replication of the consciouness itself.
To be sure, there are some scientific studies that, taken uncritically, might lead one to such a belief. In particular, Google has been working on “mind-reading” technology, which uses high-resolution brain-mapping to predict what a person is thinking about in more-or-less real time. Google has been experimenting with reading mental images and unvocalized commands. In the realm of images, Google’s development allows a sophisticated system to make guesses with high accuracy about what image a person is holding in his mind by looking at those brain scans. In command inputs, Google’s AlterEgo prototype allows someone to command Alexa or Siri without any physical or verbal component–with 92 percent accuracy (which is far better than the accuracy I get when trying to speak to either).
But when we look closer, these technologies are far more primitive than we might expect. For the image-reading programs to work, they must be extensively trained–by looking at particular pre-selected images. The brain scans of activity when looking at these photos are then used in a sophisticated game of “match” when trying to predict which image(s) the subject is thinking on. With AlterEgo, the system actually reads electric signals to muscles generated when a person mentally (but not physically) says certain words.
When it comes down to it, these devices are using highly-impressive algorithms, artificial intelligences (though not the sci-fi kind) and neural networks to read physical corrolaries to thought to deduce the thoughts themselves. I do not mean to sound like this is not amazing research and development, but it is not true “mind-reading” and it does not require an understanding of the dynamics between brain and mind. Nor does it offer any special insight into that relationship.
And that leads to my second criticism: We just don’t understand enough about the relationship between brain and mind to have any authority whatsoever to predict what is and isn’t possible in regards to mind uploading. It has been definitively established, I think, and cannot be questioned that chemical states in the brain influence experienced consciousness–my own journey with depression is a constant personal reminder of this. But there’s also a number of scientific studies that show that this is a two-way street–the action of the mind also affects the physical brain. Dr. Mario Beauregard’s The Spiritual Brain presents some evidence of this, as does the entire field of cognitive psychology. There’s nothing wrong with Kurzweil and his fellows speculating, of course, but a line is crossed when such speculation is offered as having been established on an indisputable and fully-understood foundation. Current science simply isn’t equipped to prove or disprove mind uploading theory.
Which conveniently leads to my third–and most important–criticism: we’re dealing with issues of consciousness here. Even without the kink in the hose caused by the thought of consciousness transfer, we already have no means by which to verify consciousness. We can test for the “symptoms” of consciousness–a la the Turing test–but we cannot definitively establish that any person or thing is or is not possessed of independent essence and consciousness. We do–and must, I think–for means of living life well and maintaining some semblance of sanity assume the full consciousness of other human beings (and probably also animals), reject solipsistic ideas and treat questions of what is “real” and what “actually exists” as fodder for creative fiction but not the sort of thing that should actually keep us up at night.
But when it comes to transferring consciousnesses as predicted by projections of mind uploading, we have no means by which to verify that such a transaction has been successful. I’m reminded of China Mieville’s Kraken, where a character and fan of Star Trek is haunted by the ghosts of all the times he’s killed himself using teleportation magic in imitation of the show. The difference is that we would never know if our “mind uploading” is just murder followed by the creation of very good imposters. That alone should be enough to keep us wary.
But this post is not (merely) an opportunity for me to rehash my criticisms of the idea of mind uploading, but to use this idea (in its many forms) to discuss mind/body dualism in Christianity.
Mind/body dualism is the idea that the mind and body are independent of one another but linked together somehow–they are not the same substance or material. In other words, the death of the body does not necessarily mean the death of the mind. This is in contrast to materialism, which is a form of monism (assertion that there is only one type of substance, material or essence) and the idea that the mind is merely an artifact of the activity of the physical brain.
For a quick example of mind/body dualism, let’s look at the novel version of Altered Carbon. In that novel, the main character, Takeshi Kovacs, previously served as an Envoy, a political/espionage/military operator tasked with handling senstive missions for the UN (which is hinted at being responsible for human government across planets). Note that the TV show alters what an “Envoy” is substantially. Because the fastest way to travel is to have your mind uploaded and sent as pure information before being downloaded into a new “sleeve” (slang for both “natural” and artificial bodies), part of Envoy training includes a number of mental adaptations and cognitive trainings desgined to make the Envoy especially effective no matter what sort of sleeve he is in. Though this does not necessitate belief in mind/body dualism, it certainly suggests such–it goes unquestioned that the uploading and downloading of minds creates an absolute continuity of consciousness and being–even being downloaded from an old backup means only a loss of recent memories, not a loss of self. If you would like to look at this approach in all of its terror and nuance, consider the effect on selfhood of dementia, Alzheimer’s or amnesia. For our purposes, however, Altered Carbon seems to treat the mind and body as separate–the mind can be separated from the body and rejoined to a new body and, because the mind half of the equation is the true self, the download to the new sleeve simple incarnates the mind again.
As a side note, Altered Carbon (both show and book) deals somewhat with Christian views on mind uploading and “resleeving”–though the book really only treats a conservative view that mind uploading (though apparently permitted by God under the laws of the universe) somehow condemns the person uploaded and downloaded to hell (regardless of their own intent or say in the matter).
The idea of dualism between mind and body is deeply entrenched in Christian thought, but I’m not sure that it’s fair to say that it is necessary to the faith. In the Old Testament, the Jews speak of “going down to Sheol”–a very depressive and Mesopotamian-style view of the afterlife as existing as a shadow of the living self that, at least in certain references, may be intended only as metaphor. Elsewhere, there are indications that an afterlife does await at least those who are righteous.
Certainly, in the time of Jesus the Sadducees taught that there was no afterlife, and some Biblical scholars assert that the idea of an afterlife developed mostly in the folk practice of Judaism rather than through the “official” theologies of the faith. I don’t find the Scriptures particularly determinative on this front–again we reference the Sadducees, but Jesus also points to the Scriptures as evidence that they are mistaken in the denial of the afterlife.
On the other hand, Jesus does not talk about heaven in the colloquial sense we tend to think of it in in modern American Christianity–as the place you go to experience the afterlife. Jesus talks about the Resurrection, and many passages seem to indicate that that Resurrection would be bodily and incarnate. At least some of the medieval theologians believed the Resurrection to be bodily on a restored Earth–if you look at the marginal illustrations in certain manuscripts, you’ll see wolves coughing up limbs so that they may be reunited with their owners in the Resurrection. If I am not mistaken, a large part of the Christian practice of burial (aside from being at least partially inherited from Jewish practice) is based on belief in the bodily Resurrection–or at least doubt about the ability to be resurrected if your body had been utterly destroyed.
Much of our dualistic (as in mind/body duality; dualism can mean a number of other very different things in religion) thought comes from the writings of Paul (here, for expedience in argument, I’m using “Paul” to mean the collective writers of the Pauline Epistles). There is much scholarship on Paul’s background in Platonic philosophy (i.e., the philosophies expounded upon by Plato) and the extent to which it influences his theology. I’ll just make a few points about this.
Platonic philosophy is staunchly dualistic; it posits a realm of the “Forms” where the perfect version (or Form) of each thing that exists in the perceivable (embodied) world resides. Everything that we experience around us is an imperfect instantiation (incarnation, we might say) of a perfect Form. The chair you’re sitting in right now; it’s an emanation many times removed from the perfect Chair that exists in the realm of the Forms. Perhaps the most famous explanation of this idea is in Plato’s Allegory of the Cave.
In 1 Corinthians 13:12, Paul tells us that “For now we see only a reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face.” If this doesn’t line up well with the Allegory of the Cave, I don’t know what does.
Elsewhere, Paul makes much about the difference between flesh (often categorized as weak and sinful) and spirit (desiring to be more righteous but constantly tempted by the desires of the flesh). In Romans 8:1-4, Paul writes, “Therefore, there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus, because through Christ Jesus the law of the Spirit who gives life has set you free from the law of sin and death. For what the law was powerless to do because it was weakened by the flesh, God did by sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh to be a sin offering. And so he condemned sin in the flesh, in order that the righteous requirement of the law might be fully met in us, who do not live according to the flesh but according to the Spirit.”
Paul’s words in Romans mirror at least some statements made by Jesus. In Matthew 26:41, in scolding the disciples for falling asleep in the Garden of Gethsemen, Jesus tells them, “Watch and pray so that you will not fall into temptation. The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak.”
Of course, the language above in context is not just about the disciples, for Jesus himself immediately goes away again and asks the Father to spare him from the suffering to come–it seems reasonable to assert here that Jesus is struggling with the temptation of his own Incarnation here, as he does before he begins his ministry.
As I said above, my own experiences have given me intuition that there is a divide (but also a dialectic relationship) between mind and body. And we’ve all, I think, had experiences of being young and hormonal–feeling the tug of fleshly desires against our better judgment. At the end of the day, it’s not a difficult argument to make that Christianity assumes mind/body dualism, with its focus on the perceivable world and the unseen God. Of course, there are monist (though not necessarily materialist, though there could be, I suppose) Christians–as a footnote, John Milton was one such. He believed that spirit was a more refined version of the same material substance all around us. To what extent that view is a matter of semantics, I am unsure.
Why does all of this matter? Admittedly, for the most part, much of the monist versus dualist debate regarding mind and body may be fodder for the theologians and not much more. At the same time, though, there are very complex issues surrounding one’s stance on such a matter, and some of these may affect ideas that directly impact how your order yourself on your journey to follow Jesus.
Here’s the rub: I think it’s far easier to make a mind/body dualism argument for Christianity (and existence in general)–this matches with my understanding of scripture, of Jesus, of my own experiences, and of church tradition. The existence of mind/body dualism should tell us that there is some important to that split and that both mind and body are valuable. We must remember, that, even as Jesus talks about the difference between the flesh and the spirit, he himself Incarnated as an embodied spirit in flesh as the crux (forgive the pun, reader and God) of God’s redemptive plan–a combination of flesh and spirit that God viewed as somehow fundamental to God’s plan.
And yet, there is a strong temptation to belittle the flesh and laud only the spirit. When we think of the physical world as a fallen, sinful, irredeemable place and only the spiritual having value, we are forgetting that God created the physical world, too, and called it “good,” that God created first bodies into which God’s spirit was breathed to create humans, that our goal in sanctification is not to mortify or disavow our flesh in embracing spirit, but to bring the spiritual heaven into being as an embodied physical heaven through our following of Christ.
Failing to do so leads to a failure to be proper stewards for the Earth as we’ve been called to, leads us to ignore the different experiences of embodiment humans because of perceived racial divides instead of celebrating that diversity as purposeful and meaningful but in need of greater justice, leads us to take a Gnostic approach that rejects the world instead of trying to heal it.
Yes, sometimes we may need our spirit to overcome our flesh, the mind to be over matter. But the end goal is a righteous and proper relationship between mind and body, spirit and flesh, just as the end goal is a righteous and proper relationship with each other, with God, and with all creation.
Let me attempt to bring this back to mind uploading. To really work in a meaningful way as the singularists seem to argue, mind uploading requires a dualist approach when it comes to mind and body. A monist, materialist, approach dehumanizes saying that destroying you and booting up a program that operates convincingly as you is just as good. The dualist approach, however, would say that the digital uploading and downloading of consciousness (assuming for the sake of argument that we could be sure of consciousness) is the severing of the bond between the mind and one body and the instantiation of the mind in another body, with the continuity of the existence of the mind providing the philosophical bridge that overcomes the third criticism I voiced above.
Even in such a situation, many dangers lie in even a dualistic mind uploading paradigm. We would risk seeing our bodies as fungible, seeing them as useful only for their functionality instead of what they mean as part of who we are. We would risk seeing all physical things as subordinate and relatively unimportant compared to ephemeral data–and this dehumanizes as well. We would forget to see the value of protecting things as they are–of healing what is–rather than simply replacing it. This is a direction modern society already pushes us; mind uploading technology would simple urge us farther down the path.
So, the mind uploading idea–especially in speculative fiction where it is usually accompanied by appropriate dystopic ideas and (often) a cyberpunk aesthetic–reminds us that we need both flesh and spirit, and we need to paradoxically hold the value of each in tension.