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Why Non-Existence is Suffering, and Why We Shouldn’t Accept It as a Given – Article by Hilda Koehler

Why Non-Existence is Suffering, and Why We Shouldn’t Accept It as a Given – Article by Hilda Koehler

Hilda Koehler


My friend Alexey Turchin, a fellow supporter of the mass technological resurrection, has made an eyebrow-raising claim in one of his recent presentations: non-existence is a form of suffering. That in itself appears to be an oxymoronic claim. How can an individual suffer when they have no conscious experiences at all, since personal consciousness is permanently annihilated forever upon bodily death? Philosophically speaking, this is impossible. You need to be conscious to be able to experience either pain or pleasure. However, Alexey argues that the permanent cessation of consciousness can be considered the ultimate form of suffering because it means that the individual will forever be deprived of any further opportunities to experience the physical world. This means literally never existing ever again; which makes it doubly worse if you happened to get an unfortunate lot in this current life. This is a grim reality that atheists across the entire world must contend with.

Being an atheist in the late modern period is a very unique experience in its own ways, especially for those who fell out of the womb into religious abodes. The Richard Dawkinses of the world can attest to the extent of the cognitive dissonance that comes with a life trajectory of being repeatedly told that an all-loving, all-powerful deity exists and that everything your religious tradition says is truth that must be accepted at face value — only to go to a secular public school and receive a proper education in history, critical thinking, and good ol’ science.

The shattering of your entire worldview and belief system can be likened to coming home at the end of the day to find your wife in bed with a Mickey Mouse impersonator who works at Disneyland, while he’s still fully clad in the Mickey suit. The realization of absurdity that comes with an overhauling of one’s worldview this radical can range from breeding quiet cynicism, to full-blown distress and an existentialist crisis. This depends on the degree to which your previously held religious convictions held sway over your life. Both Michael Shermer and I went down this same route (although I was fortunate enough to have my transformative moment at a considerably younger age than Shermer). Shermer was previously in pursuit of a PhD in theology when he lost his faith; I was cajoled into a far-right radical Calvinist sect when I was 13, by an online friend who had convinced me that if I didn’t proselytize my faith to everybody else in Singapore, God would force me to watch my family get repeatedly eviscerated with hot iron blades for all of eternity. My church strongly discouraged women from pursuing higher education and regularly reminded its female parishoners that God would like them to obey their husbands. When I was 16, I was propositioned by a 21-year-old male youth group member who strongly hinted that I was at the appropriate age where he could ask me to become his wife.

And then when I was 17, I studied enough philosophy to find out that the whole damn thing was made up by a bunch of people as they were going along and that Heaven wasn’t real. And that every single human being who is born will naturally be destined to spend all of eternity in an empty, dark void once each of our individual brains cease all neural function. Needless to say, I didn’t take to this revelation well.

Understandably, most atheists aren’t chuffed about the idea of spending the next 10,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 years being unable to see, hear, feel, smell, or think anything at all. But most of us still consider that a veritable improvement from spending the next 10,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 years being fully conscious while being boiled in a pit of sulfur as punishment for not tithing or sharing a kiss with someone of the same biological sex. The choice between eternal oblivion and eternal torture isn’t a hard one to make. But it still doesn’t make it all that easy for atheists to accept their permanent annihilation. While some psychological studies claim that atheists apparently fear death considerably less than their religious counterparts, I’d also say that atheists tend to be more frank with themselves in openly discussing their fear of eternal oblivion. It’s only been very recently that I’ve begun visiting online atheist forums and was surprised to find that “how do I cope with my fear of non-existence?” is an exceedingly common question.

The typical suggestions given to deal with this extreme existentialist dread are, more often than not, “you were dead for 13 billion years before you were born, so it shouldn’t bother you that you’ll be dead for the next 13 billion years after you’re dead (again).” Or trying to convince the original poster that death is no different from being under general anesthesia for all of eternity (“if you’ve already undergone surgery, you have nothing to fear!”) Or just plain ol’, “suck it up; the entire universe is going to perish in heat death, anyway, and it’s taking all of us with it.” While I applaud my fellow atheists for being thoroughly honest with themselves in facing the most terrible prospect all of humanity has ever faced, I can’t help but feel that this is a form of very pained resignation. I’ve met numerous other atheists who have had to undergo cognitive-behavioral therapy and take psychiatric medication because their thanatophobia (fear of death) is so severe that they’re terrified to leave their own houses on a daily basis and that they’ve developed severe insomnia because they can’t fall asleep regularly without having panic attacks.

How should the atheist community cope with the biggest question any human being will ever face? Should the acceptance of the permanent annihilation of consciousness continue to be the modus operandi for the atheist and scientific community for the rest of humanity’s existence?

Or should we dare to stick our necks out and consider the very far out possibility of a third alternative, that is neither the acceptance of eternal oblivion nor delusional faith in the promises of a spiritual life in a castle in the sky?

What if we reconceptualized the way we see non-existence? What if this is the next great paradigm shift that humanity will eventually come face-to-face with?

Up till the very recent modern period in human history, slavery and wife-beating were seen as perfectly normal facts of life that just had to be accepted. It was considered a given fact that some men (and the overwhelming majority of women) were effectively going to be someone else’s property and could be completely at their mercy. Try holding a similar attitude today in a developed nation. Try, in 2019 A.D., to stand on a soap box in the middle of California and scream at the top of your lungs that women should be denuded of all their political rights and that the government should make it legal for you to sell your teenaged daughter into prostitution so that you can pay off your mortgage.

“BECAUSE THAT’S HOW IT’S ALWAYS BEEN DONE.”

Try yelling at the top of your voice that slavery should be re-institutionalized and that Caucasian Americans should be granted the legal right to forcibly capture their African-American, Native American and Latino neighbours, have them shackled in chains and put them up for auction in a human market.

“THIS IS HOW IT’S BEEN GOING ON FOR THOUSANDS OF YEARS, SO THERE’S NO REASON FOR US TO BREAK THE HABIT.”

Everyone can obviously guess how that’s going to go down. Good night, and good luck, to whomsoever endeavors to try this out.

Given that modern human civilization is approximately 10,000 years old, the shifts in moral attitudes that have occurred over the last 200 years can be considered astronomical in every sense of the word. And if technological progress continues to press forth, who knows what on earth our descendants will think of us at present?

I personally had never remotely considered reconceptualizing the way I view death and aging until I was first introduced to the transhumanist movement when I watched a documentary on it, featuring Ben Goertzel.

So said Ben, “one day, our descendants are going to look back at us and be unable to believe that we let our elderly folks die of aging and accepted it as being natural. They’re going to think it’s absolutely barbaric that we accepted death so unquestioningly. It’s going to be how we now look at our forebears and remember that they thought rape and murder were pretty much okay.” Needless to say, I was pretty flabbergasted when I first heard this. It’s taken me some time to really think over the implications of what death really is, and just how great the potential for human society to shift its values and conceptions of the world is.

And funnily enough? The exact same thing can be said for the entire atheist movement. It isn’t much of a miraculous coincidence that religious “nones” are the fastest-growing worldview demographic in contemporary developed nations which place a premium on the scientific enterprise. Understandably, all the way up till the industrial revolution, people didn’t really think too hard about whether or not God really existed and if we really did evolve from monkeys, because most people were too busy trying to survive and feed their eight children (six of whom most likely wouldn’t survive till adulthood). Famines, plagues and warfare were a norm rather than exceptions that remain unimaginable to most of us living in developed nations today.

“No afterlife, no problem,” is an attitude that has only developed amongst modern atheists in very recent times. You can tell people to be content with just having one shot at an 80-year-long life, because that option is actually available to them now. If you have the good fortune to be born into a middle-class family without any significant disabilities or health issues, and you stand a fairly good chance of living a happy, fulfilling life without any significant hardships. Unfortunately, this wasn’t the case for the better part of the last 9900 years of human civilizational history. Wishing very badly that something could be true doesn’t make it true, of course. But we should at least be able to sympathize with the reasons our forebears had, and many people currently living in hardship still have, for clinging on fervently to the hope of a second chance in an afterlife.

Nevertheless, atheists today should begin to see humanity’s dreams of immortality not as a slice of pie in the sky; we should see it as a challenge and a goal post we will eventually cross with the aid of science. It’s a big dream and one that may seem impossible at the moment. But that hasn’t stopped humanity before. Transcending our biological limitations and striving for a better world than the one we currently live in has been the whole narrative of the human story. Our dreams of greater things will always seem absurd, until available technological advancements arrive to deliver them. But those dreams are what keep us pressing forward.

This essay is dedicated to Nick Bostrom and Giulio Prisco, who are my philosophical inspirations.

Due to space constraints, this essay has not dealt with the issue of overpopulation and resource depletion which are alleged by some come with indefinite lifespan extension. Other transhumanists such as Gennady Stolyarov II have addressed such concerns in other writings and videos.

Hilda Koehler is a fourth-year political science major at the National University of Singapore. She is a proud supporter of the transhumanist movement and aims to do her best to promote transhumanism and progress towards the Singularity.

In Defense of Human Exceptionalism and Immortalism – Article by Hilda Koehler

In Defense of Human Exceptionalism and Immortalism – Article by Hilda Koehler

Hilda Koehler


This essay will be attempting to rebut some of the main objections raised to indefinite lifespan extension, technological immortality, and technological resurrection. The overwhelming majority of the objections to immortalism are based on arguments from naturalism. Devotees of religious traditionalism argue that death is a doorway to an afterlife or reunion with a higher deity in the spirit world. Some atheists argue that death is unavoidable because the limit of the human lifespan is the result of natural selection, and should thus be unquestioningly accepted. However, what if a different perspective were taken on death and the natural limits of the human lifespan?

This essay will primarily attempt to go toe-to-toe with scientifically-based objections against immortalism raised by prominent atheists like Massimo Pigliucci and Michael Shermer. As an atheist myself, I think that the objections to the claims of religious traditionalists that a spiritual afterlife exist are already well-worn and solidly established. Modern neuroscience has solidly established the fact that consciousness is wholly generated by the brain and that there is no empirical evidence to substantiate the claim that immaterial souls exist. Nearly the entire atheist and scientific community accepts this as having been conclusively proven time and again (in spite of this, those who believe in the existence of a spiritual afterlife still make up the vast majority of the world’s population).

One of the major scientifically-based objections to immortalism is the charge that human beings should not be spared from death because we’re not God’s special people, but merely a bunch of apes that were lucky enough to get smart. This is the argument against human exceptionalism or anthropocentrism. There are plenty of other natural entities that have far longer lifespans than human beings do. The turritopsis dohrnii, the famous immortal jellyfish, is known for being able to naturally live indefinitely. Bristlecone pine trees are known to live up to 5000 years old. To quote Michael Shermer, “even stars die,” although they can live for billions of years. But what separates you from the turritopsis dohrnii, or a star? Well, for one thing, the turritopsis dohrnii can’t create self-driving cars and pioneer the practice of modern dentistry. Stars, including our own sun, are wonderful and all, but they can’t do the mathematics and quantum physics necessary to give a full account of the Big Bang theory and the Planck epoch. Human exceptionalism exists because of the sheer degree of human intelligence, compared to every other existing organism in our solar system. There might ostensibly be highly advanced alien civilizations far more intelligent than us residing somewhere in the Milky Way, or in any other of the 100 billion galaxies in the observable universe, but we can at least pat ourselves on the backs for being the smartest meat robots in our own solar system.

As Ernest Becker and pretty much everyone else in the history of modern homo sapiens has realised, two things set human beings apart from every single other species that has ever existed. These are the ability to question the story of our origin, and the ability to be cognizant of the termination of our own consciousnesses. Unless, of course, one day zoologists devise a way to read the minds of animals with perfect accuracy and will be surprised to find out that penguins and dolphins believe in heaven, hell, and reincarnation. But with that particularly odd possibility off of the table, homo sapiens are the only known creatures to be actively cognizant of the Eternal Oblivion all of us must face when our consciousnesses are terminated at bodily death. This is the basis of Becker’s arguments regarding terror management theory, and the basis of every single afterlife belief in every single culture throughout human history. Human beings have attained such a developed state of cognitive function that we can actually comprehend the concept of eternity; and we can comprehend the horrors of ceasing to exist for all of the rest of it.

But we shouldn’t think we’re special, the nihilistic atheists argue. We shouldn’t think we’re special because we’re just insignificant specks of protein within an extremely vast, indifferent universe that doesn’t give a rat’s hide about whether we exist or go extinct. Nothing human beings do matters, because we’re so ridiculously insignificant in the grand cosmological scheme. If that argument were taken to its logical conclusion, I can tell you about something else we can stop giving a damn about: the whole of the scientific enterprise. If nothing we do matters, all of us can happily abandon the scientific method and go back to believing that the Earth was made 6000 years ago, in seven days. If nothing we do matters, we can all happily wrap up our efforts to combat global warming and to prevent the utilization of nuclear weapons. For all intents and purposes, I’ve yet to actually meet a nihilist who will willingly let themselves and their family members stand directly in front of an oncoming truck.

I know some atheists who will respond to this with the retort that, “the universe doesn’t owe you a significantly longer lifespan just because human beings wish for it.” Well, the universe doesn’t theoretically owe us effective root-canal treatments, general anaesthesia, Reebok sneakers, hearing aids, or iPhones, but here we are, anyway. The universe may not owe any particular aforementioned desirable to human beings, but that shouldn’t in any way stop us from trying to attain it through our own ingenuity.

Death and a lifespan under three digits might be natural, but guess what else is? Giving birth without epidural. And cancerous tumors. And dying prematurely from various diseases in the absence of medical care. And spending your life stumbling about and squinting if you’re short-sighted but aren’t fortunate enough to have access to laser eye surgery or spectacles.

And plenty of our forebears accepted those aforementioned ailments as such. In every single pre-modern culture, a whole crapbundle of ailments we now have readily available medical treatment for were seen as “God’s will”. The agonizing pain of natural childbirth was, up till very recently, seen as the “curse of Eve” and a burden all women had to suck up and bear as punishment for being women. And then came epidural, and that long-held belief went right out the window. Ostensibly, cancer and viral infections are great ways for the forces of natural selection to keep human population in steady state; but that still hasn’t stopped us from inventing anti-viral medication and chemotherapy.

To quote Alan Harrington, “We must never forget that we are cosmic revolutionaries, not stooges conscripted to advance a natural order that kills everybody.”

Hilda Koehler is a fourth-year political science major at the National University of Singapore. She is a proud supporter of the transhumanist movement and aims to do her best to promote transhumanism and progress towards the Singularity.

 

In Defense of Resurrecting 100 Billion Dead People – Article by Hilda Koehler

In Defense of Resurrecting 100 Billion Dead People – Article by Hilda Koehler

Hilda Koehler


Editor’s Note: The U.S. Transhumanist Party / Transhuman Party has published this manifesto by Hilda Koehler to bring attention to a prospect for a more distant future – the technological resurrection of those who have already died. This idea has been posited by such proto-transhumanist thinkers as the Russian Cosmist Nikolai Fyodorov and is involved to various degrees in transhumanist projects such as cryonics, the creation of mindfiles, brain preservation, and the pursuit of various approaches toward mind uploading. There also arise various philosophical dilemmas as to the identities of such hypothetically resurrected individuals. Would they indeed be continuations of the original individuals’ lives, or, rather, close replicas of those individuals, with similar memories and patterns of thinking but distinct “I-nesses” which would come into being upon “resurrection” instead of continuing the “I-nesses” of the original individuals? For a more detailed exploration of this question, please see the essay “How Can Live Forever?: What Does and Does Not Preserve the Self” (Gennady Stolyarov II, 2010). Nonetheless, even if a “resurrected” individual is a distinct person from the original, it may be valuable to have that person’s memories and patterns of thinking and acting available in the future. However, the question of the continuity of identity is crucial for addressing the issues of justice raised in the article by Ms. Chowhugger. For example, if a “resurrected” individual is not the same person as the original, it would not appear to be justified to hold that individual responsible for any transgressions committed by the original, previously deceased individual. Thoughts on these and other relevant questions and ideas are welcome in the comments for this article.

~ Gennady Stolyarov II, Chairman, United States Transhumanist Party / Transhuman Party, March 24, 2019


One of the long-term goals of the transhumanist movement is the physical resurrection of every single human being who has passed away since the beginning of homo sapiens as a species. This would entail using highly advanced technology to resurrect approximately 100 billion people. This sounds implausible. This sounds absolutely mad. But I would argue that it still has to be done. This is not only a potential project humanity must consider; it must be an absolutely imperative goal. In my argument below, I will explain some of the reasons why humanity needs to consider the scientific resurrection of every deceased human being in history to be an imperative long-term goal for all of humanity.

If there’s no afterlife, we have to make one for ourselves.

Unless there is some completely unforeseen breakthrough in science providing conclusive evidence that human consciousness can survive outside the brain beyond there, it is safe to say that developments in neuroscience have very much proven that all religious notions of the afterlife do not exist. If you take an agnostic position about the afterlife and claim that there is still a possibility that a physically-manifested afterlife could exist out there and one day be scientifically proven, fair enough. But I personally believe that we have a higher likelihood of finally being able to travel to a parallel universe only to discover that it is entirely inhabited by sentient Pikachus or clones of Brad Pitt.

An unfortunate position which currently plagues the modern atheist community is one of existential nihilism. The vast majority of atheists acknowledge that the afterlife does not physically exist.

But that’s defying the laws of nature!

And since when have things being unnatural stopped us from recognizing and utilizing their beneficial aspects? Birth control is unnatural; so is laser eye surgery. So are motor vehicles, and so is all of modern medicine. At this point I would like all our readers that there are people out there adamantly trying to stop their children from being vaccinated against measles on the grounds that vaccination is “unnatural”. Perhaps one day our descendants living in an age when technologically-enabled resurrection is as common as Botox shots or bypass surgeries are today will look back at us in condescending amusement.

You have a personal stake in it; so does everyone you love. If you had the option to be revived and continue living indefinitely after your initial demise, would you choose it?

You might ask, “What value is there in resurrecting a random Chinese peasant from the 15th century?” but one day in the far future, our descendants who actually have the viable technology to execute this may ask the same of you and your family.

It’s the economy, bruh.

Consider this final practical implication of the mass technological resurrection of 100 billion deceased people: it’s going to need a lot of manpower and a lot of resources to carry out. And it’s going to be a very long-term process from start to finish. One of the biggest concerns amongst economists right now is the possibility that artificial intelligence will leave the vast majority of the human population unemployed, or underemployed. Imagine the vast number of jobs that could be created if the governments of the world collaborated to undertake a massive resurrection project. We would not just need scientists and engineers to complete the biological process. A major implication our future descendants will have to deal with is the moral re-education of those who lived in more backwards societies or time periods. Imparting modern notions of racial and gender equality to the vast majority of people born before the 1900s is going to be no mean feat. So will educating them about the major historical events and technological advancements that have taken place since their passing.

The ultimate reparative justice

The current run-up to the 2020 US presidential elections has reignited the debate about whether or not African-Americans should receive reparations as a form of compensation for the injustices done to their ancestors during the Transatlantic Slave Trade. Shashi Tharoor caused an international stir with his claims that Britain has a moral obligation to pay reparations to India for the economic damage and loss of lives caused by the ravages of british colonialism. However, I would now like to propose an even more radical solution to the question of reparative justice for historical systemic injustices. What if we resurrected all 25 million slaves who were captured and trafficked during the Transatlantic Slave Trade, and then awarded compensation to each one of them? What if we resurrected all 26 million Russians killed during the Nazi invasion of the USSR and offered personal compensation to them, as well as telling them of the satisfying knowledge that the Nazis were the losers at the end of World War II. Zoltan Istvan has remarked that he himself has Jewish acquaintances who would be happy to see Hitler get resurrected if only to see him get officially tried in court and sentenced (presumably to an exceptionally harsh prison sentence like 6 million years of hard labor). Through resurrecting victims of past injustices, we could pursue the a direct form of reparative justice and give them the peace of mind they have been waiting decades, centuries, or even millennia to receive.

Hilda Koehler is a fourth-year political science major at the National University of Singapore. She is a proud supporter of the transhumanist movement and aims to do her best to promote transhumanism and progress towards the Singularity.

Gennady Stolyarov II Interviewed on “Lev and Jules Break the Rules” – Sowing Discourse, Episode #001

Gennady Stolyarov II Interviewed on “Lev and Jules Break the Rules” – Sowing Discourse, Episode #001

logo_bgGennady Stolyarov II
Jules Hamilton
Lev Polyakov


U.S. Transhumanist Party Chairman Gennady Stolyarov II was recently honored to be the first guest ever interviewed on the video channel Lev and Jules Break the Rules with Lev Polyakov and Jules Hamilton. Lev and Jules have produced this skillfully edited video of the conversation, with content references from the conversation inserted directly into the footage. For those who wish to explore broad questions related to technology, transhumanism, culture, economics, politics, philosophy, art, and even connections to popular films and computer games, this is the discussion to watch.

This video was originally posted here. It is mirrored on Mr. Stolyarov’s YouTube channel here.

Become a member of the U.S. Transhumanist Party for free, no matter where you reside. Fill out our free Membership Application Form here. It takes less than a minute!

It is republished with permission.

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Integral Transhumanism – Article by Dinorah Delfin

Integral Transhumanism – Article by Dinorah Delfin

Dinorah Delfin


“It is easier to build strong children than to repair broken men.” Or, is it?

Integral Transhumanism adopts a framework that accounts for individual and collective enhancement and consciousness expansion through a holistic neurological reprogramming at any stage of one’s emotional, intellectual, and spiritual development. 

Whether it is through genetic enhancement, brain-computer interface, holistic wellness & education, or shamanic entheogenic practices integrated into modern life, Integral Transhumanism advocates for enhanced cognitive and neurological states to achieve heightened spiritual awareness and wisdom. This level of maturity will allow humanity to work towards a sustainable equilibrium between social and natural environments.

Integral Transhumanism takes into account that knowledge or intelligence aren’t sufficient if they don’t entail a holistic integration of scientific reductionism & rationalism, with humanity’s deep-felt intuition and connection to its nonphysical quantum dimensions.

Without an understanding of this vibrational reality, and its social and universal psychological implications, humanity will fail to design cognitive models and policies that are safe and grounded in the maintenance of the common good as it will perpetuate the disconnect between fragmented knowledge and the right course of action. 

To preserve transhumanist ideals’ inherent ethical and altruistic worldview, we must account for a truly holistic integration of mind, body and the collective consciousness. Spiritual Superawareness, therefore, constitutes the highest achievement of Superintelligence.

Albert Einstein once said, “We can’t fix our problems from the same consciousness that created it.” A holistic and sustainable re-engineering of humanity must account for the understanding of consciousness itself to give rise to truly benevolent beings, and new and effective ways to affect change.

One must not fear the evolution of humanity’s inherent technological ingenuity and desire to continue pushing through the boundaries of its limitations, but one should fear ignorance and apathy. 

One must not fear that which we might think as “unnatural” because humans are anything but willful subjects to nature’s way. We don’t tend to label the domestication of plants and animals, education, art, cars, dental floss, eyeglasses, pacemakers, in-vitro fertilization, as “unnatural”, and we don’t necessarily think of “natural” things like plagues, meteorites, parasites, or polio as desirable things either.

One must not fear that advanced enhancement technologies might be initially available to only the wealthy, as such fear is counterproductive towards our efforts to democratize these technologies. Furthermore, enhanced individuals with heightened cognitive and spiritual awareness might actually nurture greater compassion for the have-nots, and reduce, rather than exacerbate, socio-economic tensions.

Integral Transhumanism wishes to harness this growing momentum to help inspire individuals and societies at all stages of maturity towards a more just, beautiful, and holistic expression of its most authentic form. 

Note: This article was inspired by an essay written by Michael Tennison, titled “Integral Transhumanism: The Holistic Leap Forward” (2010).

Ms. Delfin is an Artist and the Director of Admissions and Public Relations of the U.S. Transhumanist Party.

***

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Visit the U.S. Transhumanist Party Values page.

See the U.S. Transhumanist Party Platform.

See the Transhumanist Bill of Rights, Version 2.0.

Review of Ray Kurzweil’s “How to Create a Mind” – Article by Gennady Stolyarov II

Review of Ray Kurzweil’s “How to Create a Mind” – Article by Gennady Stolyarov II

Gennady Stolyarov II


How to Create a Mind (2012) by inventor and futurist Ray Kurzweil sets forth a case for engineering minds that are able to emulate the complexity of human thought (and exceed it) without the need to reverse-engineer every detail of the human brain or of the plethora of content with which the brain operates. Kurzweil persuasively describes the human conscious mind as based on hierarchies of pattern-recognition algorithms which, even when based on relatively simple rules and heuristics, combine to give rise to the extremely sophisticated emergent properties of conscious awareness and reasoning about the world. How to Create a Mind takes readers through an integrated tour of key historical advances in computer science, physics, mathematics, and neuroscience – among other disciplines – and describes the incremental evolution of computers and artificial-intelligence algorithms toward increasing capabilities – leading toward the not-too-distant future (the late 2020s, according to Kurzweil) during which computers would be able to emulate human minds.

Kurzweil’s fundamental claim is that there is nothing which a biological mind is able to do, of which an artificial mind would be incapable in principle, and that those who posit that the extreme complexity of biological minds is insurmountable are missing the metaphorical forest for the trees. Analogously, although a fractal or a procedurally generated world may be extraordinarily intricate and complex in their details, they can arise on the basis of carrying out simple and conceptually fathomable rules. If appropriate rules are used to construct a system that takes in information about the world and processes and analyzes it in ways conceptually analogous to a human mind, Kurzweil holds that the rest is a matter of having adequate computational and other information-technology resources to carry out the implementation. Much of the first half of the book is devoted to the workings of the human mind, the functions of the various parts of the brain, and the hierarchical pattern recognition in which they engage. Kurzweil also discusses existing “narrow” artificial-intelligence systems, such as IBM’s Watson, language-translation programs, and the mobile-phone “assistants” that have been released in recent years by companies such as Apple and Google. Kurzweil observes that, thus far, the most effective AIs have been developed using a combination of approaches, having some aspects of prescribed rule-following alongside the ability to engage in open-ended “learning” and extrapolation upon the information which they encounter. Kurzweil draws parallels to the more creative or even “transcendent” human abilities – such as those of musical prodigies – and observes that the manner in which those abilities are made possible is not too dissimilar in principle.

With regard to some of Kurzweil’s characterizations, however, I question whether they are universally applicable to all human minds – particularly where he mentions certain limitations – or whether they only pertain to some observed subset of human minds. For instance, Kurzweil describes the ostensible impossibility of reciting the English alphabet backwards without error (absent explicit study of the reverse order), because of the sequential nature in which memories are formed. Yet, upon reading the passage in question, I was able to recite the alphabet backwards without error upon my first attempt. It is true that this occurred more slowly than the forward recitation, but I am aware of why I was able to do it; I perceive larger conceptual structures or bodies of knowledge as mental “objects” of a sort – and these objects possess “landscapes” on which it is possible to move in various directions; the memory is not “hard-coded” in a particular sequence. One particular order of movement does not preclude others, even if those others are less familiar – but the key to successfully reciting the alphabet backwards is to hold it in one’s awareness as a single mental object and move along its “landscape” in the desired direction. (I once memorized how to pronounce ABCDEFGHIJKLMNOPQRSTUVWXYZ as a single continuous word; any other order is slower, but it is quite doable as long as one fully knows the contents of the “object” and keeps it in focus.) This is also possible to do with other bodies of knowledge that one encounters frequently – such as dates of historical events: one visualizes them along the mental object of a timeline, visualizes the entire object, and then moves along it or drops in at various points using whatever sequences are necessary to draw comparisons or identify parallels (e.g., which events happened contemporaneously, or which events influenced which others). I do not know what fraction of the human population carries out these techniques – as the ability to recall facts and dates has always seemed rather straightforward to me, even as it challenged many others. Yet there is no reason why the approaches for more flexible operation with common elements of our awareness cannot be taught to large numbers of people, as these techniques are a matter of how the mind chooses to process, model, and ultimately recombine the data which it encounters. The more general point in relation to Kurzweil’s characterization of human minds is that there may be a greater diversity of human conceptual frameworks and approaches toward cognition than Kurzweil has described. Can an artificially intelligent system be devised to encompass this diversity? This is certainly possible, since the architecture of AI systems would be more flexible than the biological structures of the human brain. Yet it would be necessary for true artificial general intelligences to be able not only to learn using particular predetermined methods, but also to teach themselves new techniques for learning and conceptualization altogether – just as humans are capable of today.

The latter portion of the book is more explicitly philosophical and devoted to thought experiments regarding the nature of the mind, consciousness, identity, free will, and the kinds of transformations that may or may not preserve identity. Many of these discussions are fascinating and erudite – and Kurzweil often transcends fashionable dogmas by bringing in perspectives such as the compatibilist case for free will and the idea that the experiments performed by Benjamin Libet (that showed the existence of certain signals in the brain prior to the conscious decision to perform an activity) do not rule out free will or human agency. It is possible to conceive of such signals as “preparatory work” within the brain to present a decision that could then be accepted or rejected by the conscious mind. Kurzweil draws an analogy to government officials preparing a course of action for the president to either approve or disapprove. “Since the ‘brain’ represented by this analogy involves the unconscious processes of the neocortex (that is, the officials under the president) as well as the conscious processes (the president), we would see neural activity as well as actual actions taking place prior to the official decision’s being made” (p. 231). Kurzweil’s thoughtfulness is an important antidote to commonplace glib assertions that “Experiment X proved that Y [some regularly experienced attribute of humans] is an illusion” – assertions which frequently tend toward cynicism and nihilism if widely adopted and extrapolated upon. It is far more productive to deploy both science and philosophy toward seeking to understand more directly apparent phenomena of human awareness, sensation, and decision-making – instead of rejecting the existence of such phenomena contrary to the evidence of direct experience. Especially if the task is to engineer a mind that has at least the faculties of the human brain, then Kurzweil is wise not to dismiss aspects such as consciousness, free will, and the more elevated emotions, which have been known to philosophers and ordinary people for millennia, and which only predominantly in the 20th century has it become fashionable to disparage in some circles. Kurzweil’s only vulnerability in this area is that he often resorts to statements that he accepts the existence of these aspects “on faith” (although it does not appear to be a particularly religious faith; it is, rather, more analogous to “leaps of faith” in the sense that Albert Einstein referred to them). Kurzweil does not need to do this, as he himself outlines sufficient logical arguments to be able to rationally conclude that attributes such as awareness, free will, and agency upon the world – which have been recognized across predominant historical and colloquial understandings, irrespective of particular religious or philosophical flavors – indeed actually exist and should not be neglected when modeling the human mind or developing artificial minds.

One of the thought experiments presented by Kurzweil is vital to consider, because the process by which an individual’s mind and body might become “upgraded” through future technologies would determine whether that individual is actually preserved – in terms of the aspects of that individual that enable one to conclude that that particular person, and not merely a copy, is still alive and conscious:

Consider this thought experiment: You are in the future with technologies more advanced than today’s. While you are sleeping, some group scans your brain and picks up every salient detail. Perhaps they do this with blood-cell-sized scanning machines traveling in the capillaries of your brain or with some other suitable noninvasive technology, but they have all of the information about your brain at a particular point in time. They also pick up and record any bodily details that might reflect on your state of mind, such as the endocrine system. They instantiate this “mind file” in a morphological body that looks and moves like you and has the requisite subtlety and suppleness to pass for you. In the morning you are informed about this transfer and you watch (perhaps without being noticed) your mind clone, whom we’ll call You 2. You 2 is talking about his or he life as if s/he were you, and relating how s/he discovered that very morning that s/he had been given a much more durable new version 2.0 body. […] The first question to consider is: Is You 2 conscious? Well, s/he certainly seems to be. S/he passes the test I articulated earlier, in that s/he has the subtle cues of becoming a feeling, conscious person. If you are conscious, then so too is You 2.

So if you were to, uh, disappear, no one would notice. You 2 would go around claiming to be you. All of your friends and loved ones would be content with the situation and perhaps pleased that you now have a more durable body and mental substrate than you used to have. Perhaps your more philosophically minded friends would express concerns, but for the most party, everybody would be happy, including you, or at least the person who is convincingly claiming to be you.

So we don’t need your old body and brain anymore, right? Okay if we dispose of it?

You’re probably not going to go along with this. I indicated that the scan was noninvasive, so you are still around and still conscious. Moreover your sense of identity is still with you, not with You 2, even though You 2 thinks s/he is a continuation of you. You 2 might not even be aware that you exist or ever existed. In fact you would not be aware of the existence of You 2 either, if we hadn’t told you about it.

Our conclusion? You 2 is conscious but is a different person than you – You 2 has a different identity. S/he is extremely similar, much more so than a mere genetic clone, because s/he also shares all of your neocortical patterns and connections. Or should I say s/he shared those patterns at the moment s/he was created. At that point, the two of you started to go your own ways, neocortically speaking. You are still around. You are not having the same experiences as You 2. Bottom line: You 2 is not you.  (How to Create a Mind, pp. 243-244)

This thought experiment is essentially the same one as I independently posited in my 2010 essay “How Can I Live Forever?: What Does and Does Not Preserve the Self”:

Consider what would happen if a scientist discovered a way to reconstruct, atom by atom, an identical copy of my body, with all of its physical structures and their interrelationships exactly replicating my present condition. If, thereafter, I continued to exist alongside this new individual – call him GSII-2 – it would be clear that he and I would not be the same person. While he would have memories of my past as I experienced it, if he chose to recall those memories, I would not be experiencing his recollection. Moreover, going forward, he would be able to think different thoughts and undertake different actions than the ones I might choose to pursue. I would not be able to directly experience whatever he choose to experience (or experiences involuntarily). He would not have my ‘I-ness’ – which would remain mine only.

Thus, Kurzweil and I agree, at least preliminarily, that an identically constructed copy of oneself does not somehow obtain the identity of the original. Kurzweil and I also agree that a sufficiently gradual replacement of an individual’s cells and perhaps other larger functional units of the organism, including a replacement with non-biological components that are integrated into the body’s processes, would not destroy an individual’s identity (assuming it can be done without collateral damage to other components of the body). Then, however, Kurzweil posits the scenario where one, over time, transforms into an entity that is materially identical to the “You 2” as posited above. He writes:

But we come back to the dilemma I introduced earlier. You, after a period of gradual replacement, are equivalent to You 2 in the scan-and-instantiate scenario, but we decided that You 2 in that scenario does not have the same identity as you. So where does that leave us? (How to Create a Mind, p. 247)

Kurzweil and I are still in agreement that “You 2” in the gradual-replacement scenario could legitimately be a continuation of “You” – but our views diverge when Kurzweil states, “My resolution of the dilemma is this: It is not true that You 2 is not you – it is you. It is just that there are now two of you. That’s not so bad – if you think you are a good thing, then two of you is even better” (p. 247). I disagree. If I (via a continuation of my present vantage point) cannot have the direct, immediate experiences and sensations of GSII-2, then GSII-2 is not me, but rather an individual with a high degree of similarity to me, but with a separate vantage point and separate physical processes, including consciousness. I might not mind the existence of GSII-2 per se, but I would mind if that existence were posited as a sufficient reason to be comfortable with my present instantiation ceasing to exist.  Although Kurzweil correctly reasons through many of the initial hypotheses and intermediate steps leading from them, he ultimately arrives at a “pattern” view of identity, with which I differ. I hold, rather, a “process” view of identity, where a person’s “I-ness” remains the same if “the continuity of bodily processes is preserved even as their physical components are constantly circulating into and out of the body. The mind is essentially a process made possible by the interactions of the brain and the remainder of nervous system with the rest of the body. One’s ‘I-ness’, being a product of the mind, is therefore reliant on the physical continuity of bodily processes, though not necessarily an unbroken continuity of higher consciousness.” (“How Can I Live Forever?: What Does and Does Not Preserve the Self”) If only a pattern of one’s mind were preserved and re-instantiated, the result may be potentially indistinguishable from the original person to an external observer, but the original individual would not directly experience the re-instantiation. It is not the content of one’s experiences or personality that is definitive of “I-ness” – but rather the more basic fact that one experiences anything as oneself and not from the vantage point of another individual; this requires the same bodily processes that give rise to the conscious mind to operate without complete interruption. (The extent of permissible partial interruption is difficult to determine precisely and open to debate; general anesthesia is not sufficient to disrupt I-ness, but what about cryonics or shorter-term “suspended animation?). For this reason, the pursuit of biological life extension of one’s present organism remains crucial; one cannot rely merely on one’s “mindfile” being re-instantiated in a hypothetical future after one’s demise. The future of medical care and life extension may certainly involve non-biological enhancements and upgrades, but in the context of augmenting an existing organism, not disposing of that organism.

How to Create a Mind is highly informative for artificial-intelligence researchers and laypersons alike, and it merits revisiting a reference for useful ideas regarding how (at least some) minds operate. It facilitates thoughtful consideration of both the practical methods and more fundamental philosophical implications of the quest to improve the flexibility and autonomy with which our technologies interact with the external world and augment our capabilities. At the same time, as Kurzweil acknowledges, those technologies often lead us to “outsource” many of our own functions to them – as is the case, for instance, with vast amounts of human memories and creations residing on smartphones and in the “cloud”. If the timeframes of arrival of human-like AI capabilities match those described by Kurzweil in his characterization of the “law of accelerating returns”, then questions regarding what constitutes a mind sufficiently like our own – and how we will treat those minds – will become ever more salient in the proximate future. It is important, however, for interest in advancing this field to become more widespread, and for political, cultural, and attitudinal barriers to its advancement to be lifted – for, unlike Kurzweil, I do not consider the advances of technology to be inevitable or unstoppable. We humans maintain the responsibility of persuading enough other humans that the pursuit of these advances is worthwhile and will greatly improve the length and quality of our lives, while enhancing our capabilities and attainable outcomes. Every movement along an exponential growth curve is due to a deliberate push upward by the efforts of the minds of the creators of progress and using the machines they have built.

Gennady Stolyarov II is Chairman of the United States Transhumanist Party. Learn more about Mr. Stolyarov here

This article is made available pursuant to the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, which requires that credit be given to the author, Gennady Stolyarov II (G. Stolyarov II). 

Is the Soul Digital or Analogue? – Article by C. H. Antony

Is the Soul Digital or Analogue? – Article by C. H. Antony

logo_bgC. H. Antony


I am probably not the ideal Transhumanist; I do believe that I have a soul, that it is more the essence of me than the sum of my neurons and how they interact with each other to create my thoughts, and that it is an extremely fragile thing. Should I die and preserve myself to be revived at a later date, I fear that I would never know of the success or failure of that endeavor. That a living breathing thinking person who acts like me and reasons like me will rejoin society is not in question; I only wonder that I might miss it as my essence passes on into some other form of existence… or worse – not. I do not believe that a digital substrate will, in fact, carry my soul on uninterrupted.

I want to explore the question of the soul for a moment. In The Singularity is Near (2005), Ray Kurzweil stated that the Calculations Per Second of the human brain are in the vicinity of 10 to the 14th power, based on the assumption, and rightly so, that each neuron in the brain could be considered a digital on/off or 1/0. Around six years ago, we began seeing articles describing microtubules in the axons of the neuronal cells that seemed to have quantum properties I freely admit to not understanding. I cheerfully invite anyone to correct me on this, but it seems that while the neuron either fires or doesn’t as it communicates with the neighboring cell, the microtubule seems to exist in a sort Schrödinger-like state of possibilities – like a multiplexing wire that might convey one piece of information by doing so at a particular combination of wattage, voltage, and resistance, then convey a completely different set of instructions with another combination of the same. It seems to me that if every neuron is operating in a digital on/off state, then 1014  computations per second (CPS) are likely given the average number of neuronal cells in the human brain, and if that number might be horribly wrong because of what we now know of the activity within the axon – then this suggests that superposition state of neural activity might very well be the essence of our consciousness and, if interrupted, could be lost and what remains would be something else only a comfort to those we would have left behind.

I agree that an entirely biological existence is not only a seriously limiting factor in our future development, but also something we are destined to outgrow and will do so. However, I would say that my ideal manifestation of this is a seamless combination of man and machine. Medical technology could eliminate all the senescence we suffer to the point where the next logical step is enhancement over a timeless organic form. I, for one, would hate to live for hundreds of years and gather all the knowledge and experience of those times only to die because of some future equivalent of a drunk driver. That in itself is good enough reason to fortify my existence any way I can. If that means that my body must be replaced with an artificial one, so be it. But, I want to keep my squishy, limited, fragile brain! I want my cake and to eat it, gleefully, with a nearly indestructible form that doesn’t need the cake, won’t get fat from it, and still let’s me enjoy the flavors and textures as I do now. I want to enjoy all the many hedonistic joys freely and with only greater precision than my limited biological form can experience.

I believe we’re seeing this very trend emerge and that the collective instinct of man is far more ready to accept an enhanced human/cyborg than uploading oneself to a purely artificial substrate. Evidence of this can be seen in the amazing promise of Elon Musk’s Neuralink project, the recent X-Prize challenge for a robot avatar, and the many amazing advancements in prosthetic limbs and organs. As I previously stated, medical technology will soon overcome senescence, allowing our tissues to go on indefinitely, so to essentially cure our brain of degeneration, enhance it with a neural mesh, and go about our lives in a perfected cybernetic body akin to Ghost in the Shell: Altered Architecture is probably a pretty good direction to be steering ourselves as Transhumanists. It’s also the most likely Next Step, if you will, considering how well society is conditioned for these themes. I would certainly feel more comfortable with my own enhanced mind in a perfect and durable body that can be easily upgraded and modified as the centuries pass.

So now I ask the members of this community to bring their thoughts here. What is your ideal existence?

C. H. Antony is a member of the U.S. Transhumanist Party. He may be contacted here