Sunday, June 03, 2007

Scary Juxtaposition

The juxtaposition of ‘Hell’ and ‘Greg Egan’ in my last two posts has reminded me of a scary thought I had some time ago.

A recurring them in Greg Egan’s work is the idea of backing up consciousness: characters create simulacra of themselves that have their memories, their personality, as a way of achieving immortality. I don’t think this is likely to be within the future capacity of science,* but this sort of thing convinced me a long time ago that the notion of the ‘soul’ is unnecessary. God is omniscient. Therefore He knows the detailed history of each and every atom in our bodies better than we know our own telephone numbers. He can recreate us, exact in every detail, whenever He wants. This divine knowledge of us is many orders of magnitude more complete than our knowledge of us. Our experience of ourselves is like the spot where the pen meets the paper as the plans for a cathedral are drawn, God’s knowledge of us is like the cathedral itself. So which is more real? We are the transient shadows: God’s knowledge of us is the real us, eternal and solid.

I remember the exact instant that this vision became less than completely satisfactory to me. It was over dinner, on my 31st birthday, as I listened to a conversation between Androo and another friend with a similar name. I realized that a backup of me, a recreation of me, would still be a different person. He might have my memories, my personality, but I will still have ended. The ‘me’ looking backward was not as important to me as the ‘me’ looking forward. I needed a sense of continuity from this exact point onward into the future, a unique mapping from me now to a single individual then, without any discontinuity.

And yet- maybe we are already not continuous. Maybe this ending and recreating already happens to us. How do we know that the person who wakes up every morning with our memories is the same person as the one who went to sleep? Here is the scary thought: Maybe that person never woke up. Maybe that person has been spun off into eternity, like in Permutation City, to face judgment for their life lived so far. Maybe it is a brand new person who wakes up every morning.

It doesn’t make any difference looking backward, but it does looking forward. We ought to live each day as if it was our last, not just because one day we will be right, but maybe because every day we will be right. Maybe those six billion people who will be alive tomorrow are all other people. Why should we love the one who happens to share our memories any more than all the others? Homo sum: humani nil a me alienum puto.

I will go on thinking of God’s knowledge of me as the real me. I can’t think of a good way to reassure myself that I am continuous looking forward, and don’t just feel continuous looking backward. I have just pushed the problem to the back of my head as one of those things that is likely to drive me batty if I think about, and trust in God to solve it.

*: I can’t imagine a non-destructive way of gathering all the required information. I do think it will be possible for us to reproduce memories and personality to an arbitrary degree of accuracy in a new format, but it will be necessary to destroy the original person to get at the information.

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