Mind Uploading and Scrapbooking
I have been quoted a few times as saying, “I’m not interested in having my mind uploaded to a computer.” I should clarify what I mean by this when mind uploading is an important transhumanist topic.
First, to be clear, I do not argue portions of minds cannot be transferred from one substrate to another. We do that all the time through the exchange of ideas. When I type these words into the computer, I am leaving a piece of my mind in a digital space which houses billions of my thoughts, words, and ideas. Social media, journaling, and chatting with a friend are all ways we transfer our minds from one substrate to another. A part of my mind is left with you and a part your mind is left with me after a good conversation. This does not mean ideas are immaterial or disembodied. Ideas are always embodied even when they are transferred. Ideas don’t exist in any meaningful sense without a substrate. Am I disembodied when I tell my husband about my day? No. I am simply transferring, albeit imperfectly, a tiny portion of my mind to him through language. So far as I see it, transferring our minds to various substrates is about connectivity, not disembodiment. I am not questioning the possibility of mind transference. I am questioning the quality of the substrate which most transhumanists are discussing: computers and computer simulations.
Let’s start with Wikipedia. I don’t think Wikipedia is necessarily the best source for scholarly information on the topic of mind uploading, but I do think Wikipedia is a great place to see what the general population thinks mind uploading is. Wikipedia defines mind uploading, whole brain emulation, mind copying, or mind transfer as:
“…the hypothetical futuristic process of scanning the mental state (including long-term memory and ‘self’) of a particular brain substrate and copying it to a computer. The computer could then run a simulation model of the brain's information processing, such that it would respond in essentially the same way as the original brain (i.e., indistinguishable from the brain for all relevant purposes) and experience having a conscious mind.”
If I’m talking about “mind uploading” to the average person, I think it is fair to assume this is what they are thinking of—consciously living in a computer simulation. Granted, experienced transhumanists will likely have a more nuanced view than a Wikipedia entry, but according to this view of mind uploading, I don’t think my mind can be uploaded to a computer when my mind isn’t a computer.
My brain is more complex than a computer and “downloading” my brain to a computer would only be an analogous incarnation of “me.” I download my thoughts to a personal journal, but that doesn’t make my personal journal “me.” Of course, the quickest objection to that statement is that everything is analogous. The person I am today is only analogous to the person I was yesterday. When the metaphysics of personal identity muddy the water, it can seem almost impossible to decipher what is “me” or even lead to the denial of the existence of “me.” Even the most talented philosophical minds don’t agree on this topic, and I’m afraid I don’t have a definitive conclusion either. However, I am confident in saying some analogs are better than others—depending on our goals.
For example, if a person were trying to capture a realistic depiction of my face, there are many ways to do that. An artist could create an abstract impression of my face with a canvas, paint, and brush. Perhaps my daughter could draw you a picture of me with her crayons. You could also have my photograph taken. Maybe you could take a 3D scan of my face composed of many angled photographs. If the goal is to capture my face with as much detail and precision as possible, the 3D scan is a better analog for my face than my daughter’s drawing. Even if my daughter’s drawing holds far more emotive value to me than a 3D scan, the 3D scan is still more useful for our goal to capture as much detail and precision as possible. Even so, neither is my actual face. Both are only analogs of my face.
This is not to say analogs are not important. We learn by analogy and perhaps, according to some philosophers, analogies are all we have. The better our analogies get, the more we learn. Here’s a simple example. During the industrial revolution there were artistic drawings which depicted the mind with metal gears that rotated inside a human head. The analogy of the time was that our brains were like the machines they saw in factories. We were like steam engines with steam coming out of our ears and noses with springs and gears turning inside our heads. Today, the popular analogy is computers. We have graphics of brains functioning like circuit boards. We don’t talk about metal gears anymore. Instead, we talk about silicone and circuitry. So hypothetically, if a scientist in the industrial revolution told me she was going to recreate my living mind using gears and a steam engine, I would have chuckled. Likewise, when someone today tells me they are going to recreate my living mind with computers, I chuckle. Neither are sufficient, even if they are useful analogies or important technological steppingstones.
My body isn’t a computer or a steam engine. My body is magic. I use the word “magic” because I have no other words to describe what I don’t know. Consider the word “magic” as a placeholder for an idea I can eventually know, but don’t currently understand. If there is ever going to be an analogous “me” that I’d want to live immortally it should be just as magical as my current body, if not more magical. I don’t want to be transfigured into code. I want to be transfigured into a god with a body of flesh and bones. I want to eat, drink, and make love. I want to scrape my knees, and watch my body heal. I want to feel the sensation of free falling followed by the safety of a lover’s embrace. I want to birth children and feed them at my breast. A steam engine, nor a computer, can do that the way my mortal body can.
Not only that, I want more than a human experience. I want a superhuman experience! I want to be capable of photosynthesis. I want to know what it’s like to grow gills and swim without the fear of drowning. I want to transform. I want to fly like a bird and run like a cheetah. I want to be the burning bush, the dove, the olive branch, and the serpent. I want to experience what gods experience.
Some might be quick to contend that we are living in a computer simulation and that I already am consciously living in a super cosmic computer. Once we discover how the computer simulation works, we can do as we please. Just as Neo could bend the rules of the simulation once he better understood the rules of The Matrix. In this model, to understand the simulation is to be a god. Gods, the simulation architects, don’t have to play by the same rules as the rest of us, or better put, they know the rules better than us. This may or may not be the case. Frankly, I don’t know. No one does.
Yet, this life, simulated or not, is all I know of reality. If my mortal body is a simulation, then that doesn’t mean much to me practically. It doesn’t make my life any more or less meaningful. It doesn’t make the world any less scary, painful, beautiful, and pleasurable. It doesn’t mean I should act any more or less moral. It doesn’t mean when people die I can know they are regenerated in a different simulation or reality. It doesn’t mean if I kill someone I can’t be held accountable when they are only a simulation, or that killing a human is as harmless as deleting code. Essentially, I’m not going to live my life any differently whether this is reality or a simulation. I’m not convinced why I should care if I’m living in a “simulation” or “reality,” when there’s no practical way for me to know the difference.
It is popular among Mormon transhumanists to think of AI as our “spirit children” living inside our rudimentary computer simulations. I like the analogy. It seems fitting. To expand on that analogy, if we become the architects of a computer simulation and populate that simulation with little “spirit children” of our own, I think it’s safe to say their experience is inferior to ours. Spirits, according to Mormon theology, cannot experience what we can experience with mortal bodies. That’s one reason why the followers of Satan are miserable—they don’t have mortal bodies like we do. Mortal bodies are superior to spirit bodies. Furthermore, godly bodies are superior to mortal bodies. If the goal is to be transfigured into a godly body, my mind being “uploaded” to a computer to experience what our “spirit children” experience is a downgrade, not an upgrade. Of course, computer simulations may be a necessary steppingstone, but they aren’t the final goal of an immortal godly existence, at least not for me.
With that being said, there are interpretations of mind uploading that I do find inspiring, mostly because I am Mormon. Mind uploading is something Mormons have been doing since the beginning of our religion. Only we call it family history, genealogy, record keeping, journaling, temple work, or scrapbooking. These are some of the more primitive forms of “mind uploading” Mormons do quite religiously.
I have been an avid journal keeper since I could type. Like many Mormon women, I was taught to keep a record of my family and my testimony of the restored gospel. I’ve been doing it for over two decades. I remember scrapbooking in my youth with my mother. We were “mind uploading.” My mother snapped photos, printed them, catalogued them, and then took the care of putting them into decorated albums. This was our meager way of uploading our memories onto another substrate—scrapbooks—that we hoped would outlive our fragile bodies and decaying minds.
As a photographer and writer, I have stacks of hardbound journals dedicated to my family. I have journals I wrote to my children before they were even born. I have notes, letters, pictures, experiences, and feelings tucked away in a private blog that hold my memories. I have been uploading my mind onto a digital substrate for years. Many other Mormon women have Instagram accounts dedicated to their life as a mother. They share these experiences with other women and collaborate in digital corridors that function as a form from “mind uploading” or “mind transference.” Yet, for some reason when I read about mind uploading in transhumanist communities, even Mormon transhumanist communities, I don’t hear about scrapbooking. Granted, uploading my journal to the internet is a more durable substrate than my mom’s photographs glued onto cardstock, but I trust her desires are just as sincere. She is saying, “This memory mattered to me and I don’t want it to die.” Are transhumanists any different?
As I mentioned earlier, mind uploading is done by analogy. If a Mormon woman tells me she is going to upload my mind to her scrapbook, I’d be inclined to chuckle. However, I feel similarly when a transhumanist tells me she is going to upload my mind to a computer. I don’t want to be immortalized in a scrapbook or a hard drive. The difference between a scrapbook and a digital analog might be comparable to the difference in an abstract painting of my face and a 3D scan of my head. They are different in that one has more detailed than the other—a very important difference—but neither is “me.”
If the goal is to live forever in a computer simulation, count me out. That would put me on par with “spirit children” with a less robust embodiment. Or if I’m already living in a computer simulation, by all means, help thou mine unbelief. I would say the same thing to a woman if she told me I could live forever in her scrapbook. It’s just not good enough. Those substrates might be emotively meaningful, but downgrades to the mortal body I currently have. Essentially, I’m looking for a godly transfiguration, not a simulated transfiguration.
So what do we do? If scrapbooks and computers are an unsatisfactory substrate for my immortalized mind, what do we do?
We keep moving forward. We keep scrapbooking. We keep computing. We keep inventing. We keep discovering. We keep collecting data and information. We work toward the next best thing on the horizon. By all means, we should use steam engines, computers, journals, and scrapbooks on our journey toward godhood. However, we should also recognize there is no end to the process of mind uploading, and we will transcend specific technologies along the way. I suspect gods have transcended the need for computers just like we have transcended the Pony Express. Gods don’t need computers or the Pony Express. Whatever gods use, we would rightfully call it “magic,” which means there is better magic to discover.