David J. Chalmers on the Singularity, mind uploading and cryonics

If I would make an argument in favor of mind uploading (or substrate independent minds) it would not be a logical deduction from what we know about neuroscience but from what we don’t know.  As one of the leading philosophers of mind David J. Chalmers has argued in this insightful paper about the Singularity and mind uploading:

Can an upload be conscious? The issue here is complicated by the fact that our understanding of consciousness is so poor. No-one knows just why or how brain processes give rise to consciousness. Neuroscience is gradually discovering various neural correlates of consciousness, but this research program largely takes the existence of consciousness for granted. There is nothing even approaching an orthodox theory of why there is consciousness in the first place. Correspondingly, there is nothing even approaching an orthodox theory of what sorts of systems can be conscious and what systems cannot be….

It is true that we have no idea how a nonbiological system, such as a silicon computational system, could be conscious. But the fact is that we also have no idea how a biological system, such as a neural system, could be conscious. The gap is just as wide in both cases. And we do not know of any principled di differences between biological and nonbiological systems that suggest that the former can be conscious and the latter cannot. In the absence of such principled di differences, I think the default attitude should be that both biological and nonbiological systems can be conscious

One can argue with this derivation of what the “default position” should be, but his more skeptical approach has a degree of modesty in its favor that is often lacking in transhumanist circles.

David J. Chalmers also discusses cryonics in a favorable context:

Cryonic technology off ers the possibility of preserving our brains in a low-temperature state shortly after death, until such time as the technology is available to reactivate the brain or perhaps to upload the information in it. Of course much information may be lost in death, and at the moment, we do not know whether cryonics preserves information sufficient to reactivate or reconstruct anything akin to a functional isomorph of the original. But one can at least hope that after an intelligence explosion, extraordinary technology might be possible here

On his blog he also writes that “for the last couple of weeks I have been in Oxford giving the John Locke Lectures on Constructing the World.  The title is an homage to Rudolf Carnap’s 1928 book Der Logische Aufbau Der Welt. The lectures are based on a book I have been writing for the last couple of years, trying to execute a project that is reminiscent of Carnap’s in certain respects.”

A person who discusses mind uploading in a meaningful context, gives cryonics a fair hearing, and has a work in progress that is inspired by Rudolf Carnap’s The Logical Structure of the World should not be ignored, let alone be ridiculed.

Cryonics as something else

At EconLog economist Bryan Caplan has posted a number of blog entries that perfectly illustrate what happens when cryonics is not presented as a form of experimental long term critical care medicine but linked to other ideas such as transhumanism, mind uploading, and immortalism. One post is titled “What’s Really Wrong With Cryonics” but a close reading of the post and subsequent exchanges between Caplan and cryonics advocate Robin Hanson leave little doubt that this exchange is really about the technical feasibility of mind uploading and the nature of identity.

These topics are of great philosophical and practical interest to some but have little relevance to the technical feasibility of cryonics. When a person goes in for surgery it is not common to engage medical personnel in abstract arguments about the nature of identity prior to induction of anesthesia. Similarly, when hypothermia is used to allow complete circulatory arrest in complex surgical brain procedures it is not common to object that this procedure puts the soul at risk. Even people who do not subscribe to the  empiricist premise that underpins modern medicine have come to accept the procedures that are associated with it. Cryonics, as conceived and practiced by organizations like Alcor, is just an extension of the idea that metabolism can be reduced or stopped without inevitable irreversible death.

It is therefore surprising how many discussions about cryonics actually deal with “something else”: overpopulation, transhumanism, the Singularity, egoism, religion etc.  It would be convenient to put most of the blame on people who do not want to seriously engage with the technical and bio-ethical arguments involving cryonics but there is an undeniable tendency of some cryonics advocates to dwell excessively on the issues that triggered their own interest in cryonics or alternative methods to preserve one’s identity.  There is nothing forbidding cryonics to be linked to such topics but in light of the fact that cryonics as understood by the average person faces formidable obstacles of its own, it is not good public relations to link what is essentially a logical development within medicine to speculative futurism.

Bryan observes that he’d like to think “that Robin’s an outlier among cryonics advocates, but in my experience, he’s perfectly typical.  Fascination with technology crowds out not just philosophy of mind, but common sense.” We have made similar claims on this website but with the purpose to advance the cause of cryonics. Bryan is dead-on regarding the issue of common sense, but it is the same common sense that compels one to conclude that philosophy of mind has little practical relevance to biomedical research and practice. Unless Bryan can make a persuasive case that lowering the temperature of a patient to +20 degrees C raises no philosophical issues but lowering the temperature to -196 degrees C does raise philosophical issues there is no reason to introduce such issues into debates about the technical feasibility of cryonics.