Mind uploading, falsifiability and cryonics
On the cryonics discussion list Cryonet cryobiologist Brian Wowk weighed in on the topic of mind uploading in a post that merits quoting in its entirety:
I read with interest Bob Ettinger’s recent remarks about Mark Gubrud’s piece in The New Atlantis.
Although I have not been around as long Bob, I have nevertheless observed arguments about uploading, identity duplication, and related subjects for decades. In all that time there are two things I’ve never seen: (a) A truly new argument, and (b) Someone change their mind. What is seen are people who passionately believe they are correct, and who believe that they have just the argument to finally convince the other side that they are right. They never do.
I have come to believe that the question of whether a computationally equivalent duplicate of a human mind (assuming equivalence in this context is even definable) constitutes a continuation of the original person may be objectively unanswerable. It’s almost a matter of taste, like alternative interpretations of quantum mechanics that assume different underlying realities that give exactly the same measurable results.
Eventually the distant day will come when the computational processes of a human brain are duplicated in an electronic computer, or even in another identical organic substrate. When that day comes, we can be certain of this: If the person who was “duplicated” believed before duplication that duplication constitutes survival of the self, then, by definition, the duplicated entity will insist vociferously that indeed they did survive. This has ethical implications. Conversely, an entity derived from a person who did not believe in this form of survival might be quite unhappy to be told that they were the product of a destructive scan of somebody. This too has ethical implications.
Philosophical truth aside, evolution selects against humans who spend time worrying about whether sleep, anesthesia, or biostasis endangers personal identity. Similarly, it is easy to predict which side of the uploading and duplication debates will win in the long term. There is no entity more invulnerable or fecund than one that believes it consists of information.
Recent discussions of the topic of mind uploading on the Cryonics Institute members mailing-list contradict Wowk’s claim about people changing their mind about mind uploading. Robert Ettinger posted an itemized list with objections against the idea of mind uploading as a strategy for personal survival and I weighed in on the (current) lack of experimental evidence to settle the matter. The effect was that some people changed their mind or became more agnostic about mind uploading.
Wowk may be correct that the question whether a “computationally equivalent duplicate of a human mind…constitutes a continuation of the original person may be objectively unanswerable.” The discussion about mind uploading and persistence of the original person has distinct similarities with discussions about solipsism, consciousness, and the existence of the external world. It is not inconceivable that in a world where mind uploading has become routine the debates will still continue because the hard problem of persistence of the person is not falsifiable in a meaningful manner.
There are mind uploaders and there are Mind Uploaders. The Mind Uploaders are a small but vocal minority who display little patience for the argument that the technical feasibility of mind uploading requires empirical verification and cannot be completely settled by logical deduction or thought experiments. As cryonics activist and ex-Alcor Board member David Pizer says, “Having existed with Uploading Lovers for many years now, I believe they are as firmly entrenched in their beliefs as traditional religious persons believe that their souls are going to Heaven after death here on Earth.”
Cryonics is often associated with ideas like mind uploading and transhumanism. One negative consequence of this (un)intentional association is that some people who are considering cryonics feel that they have to embrace a much larger set of controversial ideas than what they are actually being asked to consider. As a result, there is a real risk that people reject cryonics for reasons that have little to do with the proposal of cryonics itself. Advocates of cryonics do not do themselves a favor by promoting the idea of human cryopreservation as part of a larger set of futurist ideas instead of just promoting cryonics as an experimental medical procedure to extend life. There is too much at stake to alienate people by piling more controversial ideas on top of what is already considered to be a radical idea. Such a low-key attitude will also produce a more consistent message because it extends the element of uncertainty that is inherent in cryonics to other areas of life as well.