Wednesday, July 30, 2008

If you had the opportunity to digitize your existence, would you take it?

Notes from The Parallax View by Slavoj Zizek

Due to new developments in biotechnology and neuroscience it might at some point be possible to translate chemical brain signals into digital signals. The philosopher/intellectual Slavoj Zizek wonders in The Parallax View whether “minds” could be preserved and could exist digitally. It remains to wonder whether such entities would have consciousness or self-presence. Assuming the experience of consciousness, self-presence and autonomous action were possible under these conditions, if such an existence were available to be freely chosen and would represent open-ended existence, not to say immortality, would you choose it?

I begin to picture a world in which the ancestors, or some of them, are digitized. This would be like books --only these books would be actual beings that could have open ended discussions with embodied humans. How would some weeding not take place just as happens with books through war or perceived obsolescence? Zizek imagines a not quite passive role for these digitized minds since telekinetic technologies are already taking shape. Implants can enable the brain signals of a monkey to move a robotic arm with its thoughts. Even now voices and digital signals can be sent most anywhere instaneously. Thoughts can be transmitted directly to the brain via an implant, recent experiments have shown. These experiments show that in digitized form, the stationary quality of machines would be stripped from this form of existence as the "essential" part of the being, its thoughts could travel most anywhere instananeously. A body moving and traveling through space would be the more rigid form.

Historical author’s mind-sets could be digitized (even now) so that a “conversation” could take place between a human and Saint Augustine, Rene Descartes, Martin Heidegger, or Emma Goldman. The question is, while we might predict how a historical figure would answer a question from the view points recorded, we would have a difficult time indeed predicting which, if any, of our arguments would reshape their thoughts and positions. For that matter, it might make no difference whether a fictional character or a living author were presented for interaction in this way.

But the minds of the future, preserved in the new way, would have the potential to continue to grow intellectually; would have the potential to accrue wisdom, to continue debates with their contemporaries, and to test their theories over centuries. Certainly there is no guarantee, assuming autonomy, that it would happen. Would there be depression in such a digitized existence? Despair? Suppose such an existence is actually a torment. Would self-destruction be allowed? And would not such entities face exploitation in predictable new ways—their very lives dependent on their perceived utility to future generations? With such open-endedness of existence, would compassion for the aged beings advance, shrink?

What would it be like to exist as pure consciousness? It seems to have been a human longing for centuries and yet, what is it about the body that seems so essential to our humanity? Surely, we would have no physical sensations. Physical sensations are so inextricably intwined with emotions. Thought and emotion are intwined so it is logical that emotions would still exist for the beings, but what would it be like to be remote from touch? Or any other of the five senses. You would have a voice and be able to communicate to the minds of embodied humans Zizek notes that experiments have already concluded that with certain implants, brains can speak to one another “psychically” so to speak. The voice in the phone would literally come from inside the brain of the receiver. It’s hard to conceive of this possibility without immediately speculating about its potential for abuse.

Many beings, lured by a promise of immortality, infinite wisdom, "higher consciousness," release from the pain and temptation of the body might instead find themselves ensnared in a new form of oppression.

What is it about humans that enables us to conceive and even long for a separation of mind from body--also known as the Cartesian paradigm though it is certainly a much older idea. Would we achieve a lesser humanity? How do you digitize the "unconscious" and how would it be experienced. Since many cognitive scientists do not acknowledge it, it seems likely that it would be left out. How could the unknown or unknowable parts of the brain be preserved? Noam Chomsky says that consciousness is a mystery not a puzzle.

You now have some ingredients for your next thought experiment or sci-fi novel.

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