That’s My Soul Up There
Charlie Stross today has penned a thoughtful piece on why you shouldn’t be waiting up for The Singularity. It’s fun and interesting stuff, but I have a small quibble with his thoughts on the theological implications of uploading one’s brain into the network. Here’s what Charlie has to say on it:
Uploading … is not obviously impossible unless you are a crude mind/body dualist. However, if it becomes plausible in the near future we can expect extensive theological arguments over it. If you thought the abortion debate was heated, wait until you have people trying to become immortal via the wire. Uploading implicitly refutes the doctrine of the existence of an immortal soul, and therefore presents a raw rebuttal to those religious doctrines that believe in a life after death. People who believe in an afterlife will go to the mattresses to maintain a belief system that tells them their dead loved ones are in heaven rather than rotting in the ground.
I think Charlie’s correct that there will be theological arguments about it; I don’t think he’s necessarily correct that trying to upload one’s brain into the cloud implicitly refutes the soul any more than any other non-organic life-extending therapy, like getting an artificial heart or blood dialysis. In the case of a brain upload (or more accurately, I suppose, mind upload) what would be extended is not the physical body but some aspect of the consciousness, but it’s an open question of whether this represents a difference of degree or of kind. I think a theologian worth his or her salt could very easily make the argument that if the soul is not threatened by an artificial heart, neither is it threatened by the consciousness having its lifespan artificially extended via the cloud (or the net, or the wire, insert your favorite computing metaphor here).
Also, here’s the thing: someone may attempt to become immortal via a mind upload, but death is no less guaranteed there than it is in the physical world. It may just take longer. Or it may not, since if anyone thinks a post-singularity mind-uploaded world is going to be a happy friendly utopia of love is to be asked how long their computer will remain unmolested if they turn off all the prophylactic measures they use to keep the bad guys out of them. That sort of thing is going to get worse, not better, in a post-singularity world. So death will remain — possibly delayed, but always eventually certain, since even in the best case scenario (if you want to think of it like that, which is debatable) the entire universe will wipe itself via proton decay trillions upon trillions of years from now. No one’s getting out of here alive. So in that respect, those who yearn for true immortality, the ultimate refutation of entropy, there will always be a need for an afterlife, and a way to get there, i.e., one’s soul.
So, no, I don’t think uploading implicitly refutes the soul. It just means that if the soul does truly exist, it will have to live with you longer.