This is one of the most fantastical ideas of the current time. In almost any successful sci-fi franchise or story, we see this idea of an ability to transplant human consciousness. It seems like such a cool idea! A human person has limits, right? We aren’t infinite creatures. If we have limits, then we can scope out those limits and quantify them, creating the ability to transfer personhood out of the body and into a computer. Well luckily we have science, a methodology whose whole aim is to scope out limitations, that will one day provide us with an answer to what those limitations are.
In terms of physiology, we’re pretty covered. We know the most inner workings of the human person. A lot of medicine isn’t necessarily about figuring out what the nature of the problems are, just what pieces are working together to cause a problem, and figuring out what pieces to put together to solve the problem. There are, however, a few key modern issues. Even though we have identified that neurons are the substrate of the human brain, the vehicle of thought, we have no idea how they work together to help us sense our world. Scientists have no understanding of how human consciousness manifests itself in this web of neurons, but one day they will. When they do, we will be able to transfer our human consciousness from body to body, or body to machine. Then…we would be immortal. We would transcend the need for a physical body.
The manifestation of this science fiction reality can be especially seen in a few modern pieces of cinematography: Amazon’s Upload, Netflix’s Altered Carbon, and Neill Blomkamp’s Chappie (2015).
In Amazon’s TV series Upload, a man is facing death, and has the option of being uploaded into a sort of virtual ‘heaven.’ He will have the ability to interact, in some contorted manner, with people back in the real world, but his new reality will become one that is totally fabricated by programmers. His consciousness is transferred out of his physical body and into the new computer that is his home.
Netflix’s Altered Carbon, a dystopian tale of a very dark complexion, is a futuristic film noir. The basic premise lies in the fact that, in the future, people are implanted at a young age with a ‘cortical stack,’ a hard drive that is inserted into the spine at the neck. Everything about a person’s memory is stored within that hard drive. Should that person die, then the stack can be planted into another body, degradingly called ‘sleeves,’ and the person’s life can continue on, albeit in a different and perhaps uncomfortable way. The show largely explores the exploitation of such technology.
Neill Blomkamp’s Chappie explores the ability of not only transferring human consciousness, but the creation of artificial consciousness (a theme to be later explored on its own). While most of the movie explores the consequences of creating a real and artificial intelligence, it also deals with the necessity of transferring consciousness between artificial and real bodies. [Spoilers] Multiple people die, but they are ‘saved’ by being transplanted into robots, and go on living in new bodies.
This is an impossible modern possibility: we will never be able to transfer human consciousness from one body to another, or from one body to a computer.
“Now Robert you aren’t a scientist, how could you possibly know that we won’t ever be able to do this?”
There are certain philosophical principles that we can know, and know to be true, that stand and say this. For the longest time in human history, it would not have been a feasible idea to distinguish a person from his body. The notion of a mind exists indistinguishably from his body. This all changed when Renè Descartes unwittingly founded modern philosophy. His famous phrase, Cogito ergo sum [I think therefore I am], comes from a philosophical idea that the center of human existence lies in the mind of a person. This mind is all that we can possibly know. Anything beyond our minds, the real world and our own bodies, for example, are distinct from our minds and therefore we are not able to be sure about their existence. There is an impossible divide between us thinking, therefore existing, and being, physically. For Descartes, God is a necessary being because he supposes God is the only reason that we can trust that what is around is truly there.
Later interpreters of Descartes would like where Descartes was going in his work, but would find the appeal to divine intervention a bit appalling, and would ignore it. Except if you ignore the thing that Descartes says holds the person together, then it creates a bit of a philosophical problem. This is known as a classical philosophical problem, the mind-body problem. It’s funny to call it a classical problem, as it only began with Descartes (~1600 A.D.). And of course, when modern philosophy has gone on as long as it has, and it hasn’t ever found a good solution for how to describe the human mind, it generally just gets kicked to the curb. We can observe the body – we can’t observe the mind. So let’s accept that the body exists, but we’ll forget about the mind until science turns something else up.
Ray Jackendoff, author of Foundations of Language, addresses the mind body problem in his own work about linguistics. He essentially argues that there is some reality of the mind, but not an immaterial mind that (wimpy) religious people appeal to. Nay, he instead appeals to a material mind that somehow exists collectively between the mass firings of neurons. He calls it the f-mind, the functional mind (this is a metaphysical fallacy of conceptualism, but I am not addressing that here). He doesn’t even prefer a term that maintains some use of the word ‘mind,’ as he thinks it maintains bad implications for understanding a very physical and material person.
In essence, what we have leftover in the current time and in the current thought of popular society is the notion that people are just a complicated sum of physical truths. We are a materially composite person, and a coincidentally existent creature that just so happened to evolve above other kinds of animals. The notion of a ‘mind’ is an illusion we have given ourselves about ourselves, because in truth we are just a complicated computer program – a calculable and predictable physical person. Again, we just have to seek the bounds of our physically limited reality and, once we do, we’ll be able to transfer our human consciousness out of our weak products of evolution and into stronger bodies of our imagination. We will beat evolution at its own game.
It’s just progress, guys.
Remember what I said about Descartes, however. The supposed ‘classical’ mind/body problem only originates in the 17th century. What about before? Were we just in a time of darkness and ignorance? Positivists might have you think that, those who think science and science alone will answer all of our questions and problems. But if we look into the depths of philosophical wisdom from the middle ages, and even our Greek ancestors, we would see that the answers to this question existed for a long time.
I’m going to suppose you already know what an Aristotelian Form is, as I described in my article here.
Since every changeable thing has a form, we can recognize that humans, as changeable things, have immaterial forms. This is logic that we have had since Aristotle, at least 1900 years before Descartes! Not only is this logic that stood alone on Aristotle, it was reinforced in a most dramatic way in the 1200s by a theologian and philosopher named St. Thomas Aquinas (much to the disappointment of other church members). Initially Aquinas faced backlash from using pagan philosophers to bolster his arguments, but the truth of the arguments eventually won out, and he is recognized as on of the greatest philosophers of all time, as much as theologian.
The notion of a form that underlies the human body, that exists indistinguishably from the body, that is an immaterial mind, is nothing like what modern philosophers suppose it to be. It is not a physically bound aspect of reality. While we, as humans, can gain dominion over the physical realm and even of the physical body, we have a very limited control over the immaterial realm of reality. We can obviously flex the powers of our own mind, but we are limited from directly interacting between our minds and other things in reality. We have to mediate what occurs in our minds through our bodies into reality. As much, since our minds are our forms, everything about our specific reality, most especially our body, is inherently tied to the form that gives us literal shape. Aquinas says that our inherent design is to exist in exact cooperation with our material bodies. Should we be lacking in our bodies, our natural bodies, then we would always be lacking. We would experience a bit of confused existence, unable to perceive things through a sensory body that doesn’t exist.
Since the only immaterial thing we have control over is our own form, no amount of cooperation between other people who also are metaphysically limited from controlling forms that are not their own will solve the problem. That is, it is metaphysically impossible for us to transplant another immaterial form. We can’t even transplant our own immaterial form. No technology will aid us in the project, either. Our technology, our fabrications, all exist solely within the physical realm. These physical technologies can only help but work in the physical realm that they were created within.
The immaterial forms of reality, and the immaterial forms that are our minds, exist beyond our physical grasp, and metaphysically lie out of our reach. There is no hope for us to one day transplant our consciousness.
Memento mori [remember you die].
Our physical bodies will ultimately fail. Funnily enough, though, I have some philosophical hope for you. You see, human forms are not the same as other forms in reality. A triangle’s form exists in tandem with the physical triangle that takes its shape, and when the physical triangle is gone, so does that instance of a form. Metaphysically speaking there isn’t much that happens with a triangle. Humans, though, have a bit more going on for themselves. Within the mind, the immaterial part of a human, there are multiple powers at play. The very act of change, the reduction of potency to act, happens all within the human mind (I elaborate on this here). This means that the human mind is metaphysically capable of subsisting beyond the death of the physical body. So, just because we can’t sustain our physical reality doesn’t mean we stop existing when we die. But what happens to the mind once it is separated from the body at death?
Meh, go ask a Catholic**.
**St. Thomas Aquinas