Over the last couple of years, cryonics pioneer Robert Ettinger has been a vocal critic of simplistic defenses of the idea of mind uploading as a survival strategy. He has worked out his reservations in detail in his latest book Youniverse: Toward a Self-Centered Philosophy of Immortalism and Cryonics. In a recent CryoNet message he reiterates some of his basic arguments:
“Identity of indiscernibles” is a common tenet. Often attributed to Leibniz, one version is that if two physical objects or systems cannot be distinguished from each other by any criterion, then they must be considered the “same” or identical. First, this assertion actually asserts nothing except a certain preference in use of language. It has no consequences. It is also useless because if the question arises, are A and B distinguishable, the answer is always yes.
It is hard to see how anyone can claim complete certainty on the topic of mind uploading. Nevertheless, to some of its more dogmatic advocates the case for mind uploading is simply an exercise in deductive reasoning. There are major objections to such an attitude. The most obvious point is general; why should mind uploading be an exception to the rule that we can have no certain knowledge? One might object that absolute certainty is possible in logic. But in that case one would need to defend the thesis that the feasibility of mind uploading (and its associated views about identity) is a purely logical matter and exempt from empirical testing. This is not a credible position.
This does not mean that questions about identity will be easily answered when such technologies are available. For all we know, mind uploading will be technically feasible and the debates about identity continue. There is a lot of merit to discussions about mind uploading and identity, especially for those interested in cryonics and life extension. But there is also a lot to say for being modest in making bold claims before such technologies have materialized.
In ‘The Rise of Scientific Philosophy’ the logical positivist philosopher Hans Reichenbach writes:
In Leibniz’s philosophy the rational side of modern science has found its most radical representation. The successful use of mathematical methods for the description of nature made Leibniz believe that all science can be ultimately transformed into mathematics. The idea of determinism, of a universe that passes through its stages like a wound clock, appealed to him because it meant that physical laws are mathematical laws. He applied this idea in one of the strangest creations of rationalism, in his doctrine of preestablished harmony. According to him, the minds of different persons do not interact with each other; the semblance of such interaction is produced because the different minds, in their predetermined courses, go continuously through stages strictly corresponding to each other, like different clocks that keep the same time without being causally connected.
In 1950 the writer Fritz Leiber writes an urban horror novel titled ‘You’re all alone‘ (later expanded in an adulterated edition called ‘The Sinful Ones’) which deals with the slightly different premise that the world is a mindless machine and the main character is the only person alive. At one point we read:
What if Marcia weren’t really alive at all, not consciously alive, but just a part of a dance of mindless atoms, a clockworks show that included the whole world, except himself? Merely by coming a few minutes ahead of time, merely by omitting to shave, he had broken the clockworks rhythm. That was why the clerk hadn’t spoken to him, why the operator had been asleep, why Marcia didn’t greet him. It wasn’t time yet for those little acts in the clockworks show.
Fritz Leiber’s novel weaves together solipsism (the idea that one’s own mind is all that exists) and Leibniz’ view of pre-established harmony in which “windowless nomads” follow their own internal logic but produce the semblance of communication.
Not much information about Leiber’s novel can be found on the internet at this time. Which should be remedied because Fritz Leiber was one of the pioneers of the genre of urban/philosophical horror which would later find a powerful expression in the works of authors like Thomas Ligotti and Mark Samuels.