Not science fiction: So the topic of this talk is “Naturalistic Immortality.” It is the scandalous idea that, despite appearances to the contrary, it is logistically impossible to die from your first person perspective. [PAUSE]
You may need to use what you learned from Mike McKay’s talk to evaluate what I am going to tell you...
To be clear, I’m not talking about science giving our bodies a way to live forever or uploading our minds into supercomputers one day. This is something entirely different, categorically. It would be a totally naturally occurring phenomena that applies to absolutely everyone.
So how does that work exactly? And more importantly how might a rational person arrive at such an extraordinary conclusion? Is Ben even a rational person to begin with? No promises...
Not religion: Well firstly if it’s a nice idea, why not believe it’s true? If a lot of people believe in it, that means it’s okay to believe in it as well, right? I had a dream, read some tea leaves and consulted a crystal ball, talked to some dead relatives that had passed on to the other side, and believed everything that Christian apologist Dinesh D’Souza writes about near death experiences in his books. Mostly I just have a strong feeling about it and am entitled for reality to honor that feeling despite all evidence to the contrary, because the idea of dying is just so unappealing. Convinced yet?
Just kidding... This is not a supernaturalistic idea and makes no use of religious justifications.
Philosophical Voltron: The intellectual conclusion of naturalistic immortality is the seemingly unavoidable result of combining other independently established philosophical positions. Primarily it means adding physicalism plus the metaphysical idea that all logically possible things actually exist physically somewhere in reality. That theory of everything part is what I would call the Allverse. So if you can describe it mathematically, that is without logical contradiction, it is in a sense “obligated” to actually exist, from that perspective. [PAUSE]
Obviously it will help in general if you are already on board and familiar with many of the debates revolving around justifications for metaphysical naturalism, which is basically the idea that the physical world is all there is with no magical additions. [PAUSE] I suspect many, if not most of you, are already physicalists in that you believe the mind is just the physical brain working. [PAUSE] However, you may have some hang ups when it comes to things like the personhood/teleporter problem and how exactly to define the parameters of a self.
There are many other supporting concepts that gel physicalism and the Allverse together for the conclusion of naturalistic immortality. What you believe about A and B-theories of time [PAUSE], the problem of induction [PAUSE], whether or not an actual infinity is possible [PAUSE], and how to deal with infinite ratios [PAUSE] will all have at least some impact on the conclusion. I will be touching on most of those issues with less intensity than I will the Allverse and my definition of a self. Those two positions are probably the most controversial set up positions here and I will be focusing the majority of my time on them.
I’ll be interested in hearing what Brian Vandenberg has to say later today in his talk, "Soul to Self: The History of the Modern Idea of Self" as we may be covering similar terrain.
This talk on “Naturalistic Immortality” is not a atheism 101 talk, obviously, but hopefully it will be some rousing fun. Feel free to ask questions afterward and I can elaborate or address issues I couldn’t cover.
You are just a material pattern: Physicalism is the idea that the mind is just what the brain does. There is no magical component. We are biological computation machines from top to bottom and our thoughts are made of a special arrangement of atoms. “Thoughtium” is not on the periodic table (anymore than free-willium, moralitium, or smartphonium is), but there is a type of pattern that our materialistic universe allows for which is what we call “mind.” Our brains compute from sense data and make maps of the outside world. Our brains also compute their own internal computations and make maps of their own thinking. We call that consciousness. [PAUSE] Everything we know about neurology supports this conclusion and there is no experiment that has demonstrated any other component of consciousness is necessary even though such an experiment would be theoretically possible if something else were in the mix. Why we would need magic to finish the deal when we have all this sophisticated hardware in the first place is beyond me...
It should be noted that the materials the patterns of our minds are made of are not necessarily important. Your atoms are not sacred. It’s the pattern itself that is important regardless of what it is embedded in. [PAUSE] You can make a house from wood, or bricks, or steel, and it can still basically be the same house. Obviously not every element on the periodic table may be as palatable to a mental arrangement, just as you can’t make a skyscraper out of wood for technical reasons, but the exact medium of a pattern has no particular significance. If I magically switched out all of your atoms with new atoms in the exact same positions you would not be able to notice. Don't worry. I'm not going to do that to you today.
So we’re just patterns? Who cares, right? Other than maybe most religious people? However there seem to be grounds for concern if...
All logically possible things actually exist in a physical sense: But how could one possibly know that? The reason I’m inclined to jump to such a grandiose metaphysical conclusion (which I arrived at in 2006) is because it appears to be the most efficient and least contrived explanation for the inherent arbitrariness of our universe. Stephen Hawking, for example, looks at the Standard Model of physics and asks:
What is it that breathes fire into the equations and makes a universe for them to describe? The usual approach of science of constructing a mathematical model cannot answer the questions of why there should be a universe for the model to describe. Why does the universe go to all the bother of existing?
So what does breathe fire into the equations we have on hand anyway? [PAUSE] I believe it’s a valid question that has significant weight and probably can only be addressed philosophically. Even if we get a perfectly complete set of equations describing our own universe with nothing leftover we’d likely still be stuck with the same question...why not every other self-contained set of equations describing some other kind of logically possible universe? [PAUSE]
The problem there is trying to resolve the issue of metaphysical arbitrariness and it calls out for a goal post. What ultimate state of affairs for all of existence wouldn’t be arbitrary? [PAUSE] When would be the appropriate time to stop asking the question? Because if you are not careful, literally anything you offer up will be arbitrary from one frame of reference or another. So it seems to me we need to ask ourselves what is the best candidate for least metaphysically arbitrary? [PAUSE] And I see three categorical possibilities contending for this role. Let's see if you agree:
One, there could have been nothing at all that exists. There wouldn’t be a problem if there was nothing to have a problem with it, right? But we can rule that out deductively since, ta da, here we are. [PAUSE]
Two, there could have been some arbitrary selection that exists from all the logical possibilities. For instance our universe could just exist and that be the entirety of reality. Or maybe just this room with you and I and false memories of a false history and no future might exist and that be it. You don’t know. [PAUSE]
Three, all logically possible things actually do exist and we only get to look at a part of that. [PAUSE]
Please note that the idea of “all logically possible things” is its own thing in concept. It is real that we have at least a sampling of logical possibilities “alive” in this universe. And it will always be a real question about whether the infinite other candidates of logical possibility are out there, from an empirical standpoint, even if you disregard everything else I have to say philosophically on this issue. So keep that in mind, please. [PAUSE]
So it seems to me that the real competition is between categories 2 and 3. Something arbitrary existing or everything existing. [PAUSE]
The second option begs the question of why just that selection of possible reality gets to exist at the expense of all its conceptual siblings. If the question of metaphysical arbitrariness is valid, then one has to propose an elaborate ad hoc hypothesis to justify such a privileged existence. However, there is no privileged existence if we kick out that ad hoc hypothesis. Bizarrely enough it appears that proposing everything is actually simpler than proposing just one arbitrary thing. [PAUSE]
Perhaps you might agree that it is entirely arbitrary to settle for an ultimate explanation like a supreme deity with all sorts of arbitrary characteristics and magic powers, or a cosmic universe laying chicken, or the answer 42. As I’ve said, even the Standard Model at the end of the day when we finish it up is going to be equally arbitrary. [PAUSE]
I would hope that most philosophers know that every theory of everything must at some point accept the brute fact of existence without further explanation, because there is no longer any logical possibility for there actually being further explanation. I contend that what I call the Allverse is that brute fact of reality...the most natural metaphysical context where our question about the arbitrary nature of our universe can make the most coherent sense. [PAUSE]
It seems to me incidentally this is the next logical extension of what most metaphysical naturalists already believe. [PAUSE] How is it that life came to be? Well through a long and wide process of natural sorting of living species, we and the other living species on this planet were left over from all the poorly adapted extinct ones. [PAUSE] How is it a self replicating molecule could assemble itself through chemistry alone? Well there’s a giant universe full of molecular combinations and that probably allowed for abiogenesis to get started somewhere on some planet and we got lucky. [PAUSE] How is it that our universe is conducive to life? Well with a large enough selection of universes with different properties at least one possible universe would have the sufficient parameters to allow for life. [PAUSE] Well why are there even universes or multiverses at all? Well...if every logically possible thing exists (including things we might not label universes) then things like universes would be part of the lot. [PAUSE] If you wanted to be cute you could ask why does something rather than nothing exist...and the answer is that both something and nothing exist without preference. You just didn’t notice the nothing. [PAUSE]
The question then is, if you are just a pattern...and every pattern literally exists somewhere out there, then why wouldn’t every infinitesimally small variation of you not exist in the infinite library of all the rest of existence?
But some of you may be asking, even if all those patterns really are out there,what connects your pattern to those patterns? I mean, maybe something like that is true, but why should I care, right? Well I’m glad you asked!
Perhaps you’ve heard of the classic Teleporter problem:
I’m going to argue that if the Allverse physically exists, that you cannot disown your attachment to all the other patterns of you while consistently maintaining ordinary definitions of self. [PAUSE]
So how do we draw the boundaries of self, your personal identity, as physicalists? Religious people tend to have huge problems with this kind of thing when it comes to abortion and when exactly morally relevant, conscious human life begins. I find that many secular people have similar issues in the contexts relevant here.
Atomic differences: To all the physicalists in the room, I ask the question, like a Socrates...are you slightly different than you were a moment ago? [PAUSE]
Is it not true that you as a physical pattern are ever so slightly different from your previous self every moment of your life? You have new thoughts, new memories, new ever updating experiences. And even your atomic arrangement must be slightly different since we can’t hit absolute zero in temperature, now can we? Atoms have to keep moving. And you are made of atoms. [PAUSE]
As they say, you can’t cross the same river twice. And in this case, I need to point out that in the most rigid, yet still entirely accurate, sense, you can’t find the exact same person twice either.
I apologize for the technicalities here, but they actually do matter, if you bear with me.
Now, I’m going to push your buttons a little more.
Sleep is dying/rising: Here’s an idea: I want you to consider...that every night you die and later you respawn somewhere else in the universe. [PAUSE] The colloquial way to describe this existential crisis is called sleeping. [PAUSE] Assuming you are on a typical sleeping schedule (which I’m not), at night when you go to sleep you lose consciousness (which is effectively death since you’re not even dreaming at that point), the earth moves the atoms of your body to another location in time and space (since everything in our solar system is always moving) and then miraculously you’re alive again! You’ve woken up! You may have no idea where you are, you may have no idea what’s been happening for the last 5 to 14 hours, and you may in fact feel entirely different than when you died--I mean, when you went to bed. [PAUSE]
I know you probably all hate me now, but I assure you, the technicalities do matter. They are technicalities that we must practically ignore, but they are still real. [PAUSE]
Those were just warm up exercises for your brain. It's going to get a lot more difficult as we get into more hypothetical scenarios.
Teleportation: If you’re a fan of Star Trek, Stargate, or Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory you will probably be familiar with the science fiction idea of teleportation. Some sort of technology records your pattern, rips your atoms apart, sends them someplace else and then according to that record of your pattern reassembles them at this new location. In science fiction, normally this isn’t a huge deal. It’s just like getting into a car and going to work, but in the cool futuristic way.
In reality, talking to real people, it seems they often have what I would consider unjustified definitions of self which require them to say teleportation of this sort, if it were real (and as described), would mean death and whatever identical person who is reassembled at the other end wouldn’t actually them.
Sleep vs. Teleportation: I would like to point out to those who may have hang ups here, what is the difference, from a 1st person perspective, between Star Trek teleportation and sleeping other than how we feel about it? [PAUSE] It’s true, when you are sleeping your atoms are not being ripped apart and reassembled, but they aren’t being used either for consciousness (until you start dreaming). Consciousness is off in both cases, atoms are transported in both cases, and consciousness is then on again in both cases. And everyone still agrees that’s still you on both ends of waking up and going to sleep. So for a physicalist why would that not be you on both ends of a hypothetical Star Trek teleporter?
Boundaries of Self: So, if you are following along, every moment of every day you are not exactly the you of a moment before in physicalist terms and yet we still call you you. You are never the same you and yet for some reason you probably feel free to claim all of your past and future selves as monolithically you? [PAUSE] If you are Catholic you may even call your single celled, neuron free, zygote self you. I say that, if you are a physicalist like me, you must accept that these definitional confines of personhood are quite arbitrary.
Your two year old self, for example, is radically different in virtually every way from your 26 year old self aside from a common pattern of DNA. [PAUSE] But wouldn’t that also be the case if you were same age clones or identical twins who are much more like each other than you are from a much younger self? [PAUSE] Is a clone you you if it shares your DNA? I don’t know of anyone who thinks that. If 2 year old you met 26 year old you via time travel, there’d be virtually nothing about you that was alike. Yet, supposedly that’s still you? You’d be lucky to even share active memories. [PAUSE]
I don't consider most of the things I did as a kid that relevant to my current identity. There are many similarities to be sure, but is it really meaningful to maintain a monolithic definition of self that lumps every moment of your life under the banner of "you?" Doesn't seem that realistic to me. [PAUSE] So how many years in either direction should we take ownership of? How many months? How many hours, minutes, and moments? How you do you have to be to count as you? [PAUSE] And do we get to commit violent crimes and then tell the police officers that you can’t possibly be the suspect they are looking for because you are a philosopher full of technicalities!? [PAUSE] Of course, that’s silly. But it is a real question of where do you draw the line? Do you have to draw a rigid line when any line you are forced to draw will be at least somewhat arbitrary? [PAUSE]
Or do we have to admit that personal continuity is inherently a fuzzy, categorical free association game between complex, ever-changing atomic states we have to approximate for practicality sake? [PAUSE] Evolution wasn’t interested in philosophy, wasn't interested in making you feel existentially comfortable with every fact there is to know about existence, and there is no magical personhood glue connecting your atomic arrangements together from one moment to the next that we could hope to appeal to. [PAUSE]
William Rikers: Science fiction has pioneered some helpful conceptual terrain for us to further explore in regards to our definitions of personal continuity. There’s an episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation called "Second Chances" where the Commander Riker we know meets a copy of himself that was accidentally generated in a teleporter accident 8 years prior. [PAUSE] Commander Riker and Lt. Riker used to be the same person, but the teleporter signal split due to atmospheric interference and one Riker went home to his spaceship as intended and unfortunately another Riker found himself stuck back on the planet. [PAUSE]
I submit to you that if this hypothetical scenario were real both Rikers would have an equal claim to the original William Riker from before the teleporter accident. [PAUSE] Of course, they became different people as time went on from that original split. One Riker advanced in rank and fell out of love with Counselor Troy. The other Riker lived by himself, still a Lt. and held on to his feelings for Counselor Troy for 8 years until he was found again. [PAUSE]
Why am I bringing all this up? I’m not trying to tell you that teleporter technology is or even has to be real, after all. That’s beside the point. [PAUSE]
If you combine physicalism with the metaphysical hypothesis that all logically possible things actually exist, it logically entails that there is always more you out there. [PAUSE] Every slightly different version of you there could possibly be in the next moment is a logically possible thing in physicalist terms, in concept. [PAUSE] If all logically possible things actually exist, all those yous exist. [PAUSE] Hence, if both William Rikers get to claim the original William Riker as their past self, all those possible you continuation points will get to claim the current you as their past self, just as you are going to moments from now. [PAUSE]
So not only does this mean that you can’t die from your first person perspective since there would always be more you after your death, [PAUSE] but also that you have an infinity of future conscious pathways ahead of your current pattern of self. [PAUSE] Outsiders may see you die (as obviously we do every day), but from your first person perspective, it will be as though you merely teleported naturally to somewhere else in existence that is incrementally physically compatible with the next moment of your conscious thought. [PAUSE]
I submit to you again that you cannot consistently defend physicalist definitions of self and block your infinite connections to all the more you out there. [PAUSE] If you are a Star Trek nerd you may well have thought all these kinds of things through and be somewhat on board with what I’m saying. If not, you may want to take some time to think more about it. The technicalities really do matter here. [PAUSE]
To refresh: [PAUSE]
A: Every moment of every day you must be slightly different than you were a moment ago, if you are just made of atoms that can't possibly stop moving. [PAUSE]
B: When you go to sleep, the pattern of your consciousness is practically dead (though your brain is not biologically dead) and is moved to a different location and turned back on in the form of waking up. [PAUSE]
C: This is not meaningfully different than science fiction where they have teleporters that can end conscious experiences, move atoms, and then turn conscious experiences back on. [PAUSE]
D: To deal with all the nuances of personhood, you have to draw at least somewhat arbitrary lines and declare an atomic selection you enough to work with. [PAUSE]
E: There are an infinity of logically possible yous (in concept, at the very least) that are just as close to being you from one moment to the next as you consider yourself to be now from a moment ago [LINGER] within the confines of those arbitrary boundaries we unknowingly have to draw every day to have a coherent sense of active self. [PAUSE]
F: If all logically possible things actually exist, all those continuations of you must exist that all have an equal claim to call you their history. [PAUSE]
G: If all that is true, then from a metaphysical naturalist’s perspective, it is absolutely impossible to die. [PAUSE]
And that’s the basic outline of naturalistic immortality. [PAUSE]
Naturalistic Immortality: [READ SLOWLY] If all logically possible things exist then every logically possible conscious being and every logically possible experience every one of those logically possible conscious beings could have actually plays out somewhere. It just so happens you are one such possibility. [PAUSE]
Outroduction: So...show me why I’m wrong. Demonstrate the errors in my logic. Educate me about how physics and consciousness really work. Point me to some good books or articles online. Tell me that I’m crazy. I’m okay with that.
Otherwise, shit your pants. You’re going to live forever.