The Acid Tanks Await

I’ve always had this inkling feeling that the Transhumanist singularity is nothing much more than a rather daft idea peddled by the likes of Ray Kurzweil.

It’s a topic that comes up for regular chewing over in the science blogosphere, particularly around the time when the proponents of transhumanism hold a shindig.

I came across something today that triggered a faint memory. Over at Pharyngula, there’s a post today that contains a comment by Ye Olde Blacksmith that nails the flaw for me.

To summarise the idea of the singularity, it is that at some point in the not-too-distant future, it will be possible to copy the consciousness of a human person into another, perhaps non-biological, substrate, such that the consciousness lives on in the new vessel.

In a way, it’s what lies at the heart of the Star Trek transporter, but the idea was explored even earlier in Science Fiction in the 1964 book by Clifford D. Simak: Way Station. The central idea of the book is that what appears to be a remote rural farmstead in Earth is in fact a galactic way station that travellers are passing through. As Simak envisages it, travellers arrive at the way station by having their bodies and their consciousness replicated from the blueprints taken at the previous station. When they leave, the process begins with their complete blueprint, body, consciousness and all being transmitted to the next station. It is completed when the traveller on earth is killed and its body flushed into the underground tanks of acid that lie beneath the way station. That image has stayed with me.

The comment on the Pharyngula thread rather brought the memory of that book back to me:

Dr. Nick: Good evening, Mr. Anderson. Are you ready for the procedure?

MeatbagMe: Hi. Um, yeah, I guess. Are you sure this will work? I’m really going to be in the machine?

Dr. Nick: Yes, you will be in the machine and will no longer be biologically mortal.

MeatbagMe: Oh, OK, let’s get this party started.

*Dr. Nick admininstering sedative via I.V.*

Dr. Nick: Ok, start counting backwards from 100.

MeatbagMe: 99…98…97…9…..

Dr. Nick: Are you there? Can you hear me, Mr. Anderson?

DigiMe: Hey, yeah, I’m here! SWEET! I’m in a computer. The interfaces are awesome! I can’t even tell I’m not still in my body. So what happens now?

Dr. Nick: Well, now that we have established that the procedure was successful, we will dispose of the body.

DigiMe: Wait, what? So my original body is dead?

Dr. Nick: No, it isn’t dead, but you have no use for it anymore. Now that you are digital, that is, you have not need for a biological carrier.

*MeatbagMe comes to*

MeatbagMe: Hey, what happened? Did it work? I don’t feel any different.

Dr. Nick: Nurse, please begin the body disposal procudures.

*Nurse begins administering something via I.V.*

MeatbagMe: What? Hey, I’m still alive here! You can’t do this!

Nurse: The body is prepping now, Dr.

MeatbagMe: Hey! HEY! Stop this! I’m still here! I’m still here goddamm……………..

Nurse: I will arrange for the transport of the remains.

Dr. Nick: Thank you. Mr. Anderson, will you be requiring anything else?

DigiMe: Nope, I’m good.

Or, in devastating summary (comment #46):

“As you can see, this new duplicate of you is an exact replica in every way, down to every last memory, down to every last arm hair. Now please step into the disintegration chamber.”

This seems to me to be the fatal flaw. If I am a non-dualist, then I have to believe that “I” will cease to exist once I step into the disintegration chamber. The fact that a replica of me, carrying a perfect copy of my consciousness will carry on is of little comfort to the me that existed up until that point…

The acid tanks await…

About Geoff Coupe

I'm a British citizen, although I have lived and worked in the Netherlands since 1983. I came here on a three year assignment, but fell in love with the country, and one Dutchman in particular, and so have stayed here ever since. On the 13th December 2006 I also became a Dutch citizen.
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