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How Can I Live Forever?:  What Does and Does Not Preserve the Self

Posted: Sat, April 06, 2013 | By: Indefinite Life Extension



by Gennady Stolyarov II

When we seek indefinite life, what is it that we are fundamentally seeking to preserve? I begin by observing that I perceive the world as myself – Gennady Stolyarov II – and not as any other person. That is,while I may be able to envision another person’s perspective, I cannot directly

assume another person’s physical sensations and thoughts; I cannot become another person. At the same time,

my own sensations and thoughts, as I experience them directly, are what

constitute my being, or – since “being” is too general a term – my “I-ness”.

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.

Graphic of Longevity Escape Velocity by Zedatik

Now suppose that instead of GSII-2 being my contemporary, he

was created in some dystopian future where I had already died of some

misfortune or another, but someone found a way to reconstruct the latest

healthy state of my body, including my mind, atom for atom. The situation with

regard to preservation of my self would not change; GSII-2 would be able to

live as if he had my past knowledge

and experiences – but my “I-ness”

would still be gone; it would not transfer to him simply because the original

Gennady Stolyarov II had died. Indeed, the I who had died would never be aware

in any manner of GSII-2’s existence or any experiences he might have in this

future time.

What is, then, this “I-ness” which can be preserved through

some transformations and not through others? For instance, it is true that

every atom comprising one’s body now is not the same as the corresponding atom

that comprised one’s body seven years ago. Nonetheless, if one remains alive,

one’s “I-ness” is clearly preserved. How can that be? It is so because the

replacement does not occur all at once. Rather, at any given time, only a small

fraction of the atoms in one’s body are being replaced as old cells and their

components take in energy, replicate, die, and are replaced by others. Thus,

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. This can shed some light on which

situations would allow for the preservation of one’s “I-ness” and which would

not.

Infinity

Situations That Allow


for Preservation of “I-ness”

Sleep – Sleep is often not even a

suspension of consciousness; dreams, for instance, are cases of the

consciousness turning in on itself, examining and remixing data that have

already been absorbed from the external world. Deep, dreamless sleep, where the

passage of time is not noticed by the sleeper, also does not involve a

cessation of bodily activity – and certain subconscious areas of the brain

continue to work during it as well.

General Anesthesia –

General anesthesia induces a temporary completely unconscious state in a

patient, but it does not shut down the body completely; essential mechanisms,

including the heart, continue to operate. Consciousness that is suspended and

then revived, with the other bodily processes having remained continuous in the

meantime, will not become an entirely different consciousness with a different

“I-ness” but will rather preserve its previous “I-ness”. Having once been under

general anesthesia, I can say with certainty that my “I-ness” had not been

terminated in the process.

Comas and Vegetative


States – During a coma or a vegetative state, basic, largely involuntary,

bodily processes continue to function. If full functionality of the brain is

eventually restored, the underlying system in which the “I-ness” emerges would

still have functioned uninterrupted in the meantime. Some recovered coma

patients, however, have also reported being aware of their surroundings during

the coma, suggesting that aspects of higher consciousness can also be preserved

without interruption in such a condition.

Rescues from the


Brink of Death – Situations where individuals have had close  brushes with death may involve cessation of

functionality for some bodily systems but not for all. At least with current

technology, the affected systems can only be “restarted” because some of the

body’s systems have not yet completely failed. This means that nothing about

such experiences would preclude the continuity of one’s “I-ness”.

Incremental Organ


Replacement – An artificial organ that is incorporated into a functioning

bodily system will not disrupt the continuity of that system. Before, during,

and after the transplant, the body continues to execute numerous important

functions, and the new organ – provided that the transplant is accepted by the

body – becomes just a new part of the same continuous system. As with atoms all

being replaced over time, it is at least conceivable that – via a series of

gradual replacements – all of a

person’s organs, including the brain, could be exchanged for artificial

varieties without disrupting the continuity of that person’s identity. This, of

course, would only be the case provided that the organs were replaced one or a

few at a time. With replacing the brain in this fashion, particular care would

need to be taken to ensure that the replacement is not a situation of simply

taking out the existing brain and putting a new one in its place. Rather, the

new brain would need to start as an addendum to the existing brain, so that the

existing brain could integrate its contents with the new brain before parts of

the existing brain (for instance, a physically diseased or irreparably damaged

brain) are taken out of commission. If a gradual replacement is performed, it

might even be possible for an individual to eventually have a fully electronic

brain that still preserves that individual’s “I-ness”.

Situations That Would


Not Preserve “I-ness”

Reanimation After


Full Death – Suppose, instead of creating an identical atom-for-atom

replica of a dead individual, that individual’s fully dead corpse were instead

exhumed and rehabilitated by restoring all bodily systems to a functional level

and in configurations exactly replicating 

the dead individual’s last healthy state. While, here, the individual’s

actual body would be worked on, in terms of the preservation of “I-ness”, this

situation is no different from the case of a perfect replica of a deceased

person having been made from scratch. The reanimated individual would possess the

knowledge and memories of the dead individual, but the dead individual would

not be aware of the reanimated individual’s existence and would not experience

the reanimated individual’s subsequent interactions with the world. There may, of

course, be tremendous value for others

in reanimating already dead people, as the reanimated individuals’

personalities and mental states (shaped by the dead individuals’ actual past,

which the reanimated individuals would perceive the illusion of having

experienced) could be invaluable in improving the world. Moreover, the

reanimated individuals would certainly be happy to be alive and would be as

fully human and entitled to the same rights as would have been the dead

individuals on whom they were modeled.   However, while the reanimation of already dead

people would be a fascinating breakthrough, it would do nothing for preserving

the “I-nesses” of those who had already died.

With practices such as cryonics – where the hope is to

eventually reanimate currently clinically dead individuals by placing their

bodies in biological stasis in the meantime – the issue of whether “I-ness”

would be preserved is a bit more challenging to address. Cryonics relies on the

premise that the current definition of death – based on what situations of

bodily decay today’s medicine would be able to reverse – would not be the same

as the definition of death prevalent in the future, when many more conditions

would hopefully be reversible. If an individual who is clinically dead by

today’s definition but would not be clinically dead by a future definition is

“frozen” today in a particular condition, the hope is that future technologies

would – even by their routine application – be able to revive that person.

However, in order to accomplish the preservation of the body up to that time,

cryonics relies on suspending the physical processes within the body as much as

possible. If these processes were not suspended, then their natural operation

would lead to further decay of the body to the point where it might be

extremely difficult or impossible to recover even using future technologies. While

the cryonically preserved individual is not fully

dead, at least under a future definition, it is not clear what the implications

of putting an entire body (including all physical

systems, not just some) in stasis and


later reanimating that same body would be for the preservation of “I-ness”.

Moreover, I can only speculate as to whether cryonic preservation would still

involve some extremely low-key

uninterrupted functioning of bodily systems – or whether it would require a

complete shutdown of all systems. In the latter case, a cessation of “I-ness”

would appear to be much more likely than in the former.

“Uploading” of


Consciousness – Particular caution should be taken with regard to any

proposals to “upload” an individual’s mind, personality, or memories onto a

computer or an Internet-like network. I can conceive of ways where such

“uploading” might be safe with regard

to not disrupting an existing

“I-ness”, but I strongly doubt that the “uploaded” consciousness could serve as

itself a perpetuator of the same “I-ness”. Assuming that it would become

possible to encode all the information in a person’s brain in a similar manner

as files can be written to a portable drive and then copied to a computer, this

would only create a copy of mental configurations. That copy might even have

advanced interactive functionality, but it would not and could not replace the

person of whose mind the copy was made.  This situation might even be compared to the

simultaneous existence of an individual and an identical replica of that

individual in the body; just as these two people would have two different

“I-nesses”, so would the original bodily consciousness of the individual whose

mind had been “uploaded” have a different “I-ness” from the “I-ness” of the

“uploaded” mind (and I do not rule out the possibility of a non-organic entity

of sufficient complexity being self-aware).

The “uploading” situation I described is similar to making

an interactive archive of one’s mind – which might, in its more advanced

implementations, also be self-aware. I recognize numerous potential benefits to

such an approach, provided that it does


not destroy or presume to replace the bodily mind which is being

“uploaded”. The much more dangerous version of the “uploading” ambition

perceives the “uploading” as a sort of migration

of the consciousness from a corporeal (be it organic or inorganic) environment

to a virtual environment. Any cessation of the corporeal person’s bodily

processes as a consequence of such a “migration” would destroy that person’s

“I-ness” – just as dying and having a bodily replica of oneself built afterward

would. It would be tragic indeed if people for whom indefinite

self-preservation is the foremost goal inadvertently destroyed their essential

vantage points in the attempt to perpetuate them.

“Merging” of


Consciousnesses – Some futurists have expressed the desire to eventually

connect multiple individuals’ consciousnesses via electronic means – much as

computers can be connected to one another. Such connections are supposed to

facilitate individuals’ abilities to sense directly the experiences of the

other individuals to whom their minds are connected. But such an undertaking –

depending on how it is implemented – may also have destructive effects with

regard to the “I-nesses” of the individuals being connected.

I can conceive of two qualitatively different scenarios

where individual consciousnesses might be connected. Scenario 1 would appear to

be innocuous. To understand how it might work, suppose that it became possible

to upload copies of an individual’s thoughts and experiences onto a portable

medium – much as one might upload a file from a computer onto a portable drive without destroying the original file. If

it becomes possible to directly convey thoughts and experiences in an

electronic medium, then such copying and transfer from one mind to another

might also become possible. Taken one step beyond a portable medium that can be

“plugged into” one conscious system and then transported to another, one might

envision a more continuous mechanism for doing so – similar to a wireless Internet

connection over which information is transferred. But it is important to

recognize that, while this linkage might enable Mind X to experience what Mind

Y experiences, the two experience sets would still be perceived by the separate “I-nesses” of Mind X and Mind

Y. If Mind Y obtained the experiences of Mind X and Mind X were to be

physically destroyed, the “I-ness” of X would not be transferred to Y. This

scenario has a parallel in currently available technologies such as explorer

robots which have entered narrow shafts in Egyptian pyramids and traversed the

surface of Mars, sending back continuous live images of what their cameras

recorded. These images enable a human observer to experience the environment of

the robot without being in that environment. 

However, if that robot were instead a conscious being, the transmission

of images and even other sensory stimuli from this being would not equate to an

extension of the being’s “I-ness” to the observer. This scenario would,

presumably, allow for each individual participating in the sharing of

information to select which information to share or to keep to oneself, much as

a computer connected to the Internet does not need to share all of the files on

it with other computers in the network. 

However, another scenario – call it Scenario 2 – with regard

to “merging” consciousnesses could not avoid destroying the “I-nesses” of those

involved. This scenario would constitute a complete


merger, where the aim is for every consciousness to be able to directly

assume the vantage point of every other and


to control the actions of the others directly – without any meaningful

separation possible among the minds involved. 

If two “I-nesses” were to merge in this manner, then they would probably

become a single “I-ness” based on the combined sensations of the previous

“I-nesses”. But, just as mixing two fruits together in a blender and separating

the results into two halves would not yield the original fruits, neither would

combining two “I-nesses” and then separating them (assuming this would be

technically feasible) result in the original “I-nesses”. At best, there would

be two “hybrid” “I-nesses” and, at worst, no “I-nesses” at all, because the new

combined “I-ness” might be destroyed by division just as the “I-ness” of every

biological individual today would be eliminated via any attempt to split it

into components. Every human observation and experience to date suggests that

the human individual is the basic unit of rational, conscious activity – and that

physically separating the mind into sub-components destroys the emergent system

of rational consciousness.  If the desire

is to preserve the individuality of each person – which necessarily implies

preserving that person’s self-awareness and vantage point, as directly

experienced by that person – the kind of “merging” involved in Scenario 2 should

be avoided as contrary to that aim. However, the “file sharing” situation of

Scenario 1, where each “I-ness” remains compartmentalized within the individual

and experiences are only shared at each individual’s discretion, might be a

useful and, if safety precautions are taken, harmless future means of extremely

direct communication.

True Preservation of


Self

Where does this discussion leave the advocates of literal – as opposed to figurative – immortality who are

interested in preserving the actual “I-ness” of each individual, as opposed to simply

a memory or record of that individual, however complete and interactive – or

creating a functioning replica of that individual in the future? Two general

conclusions can be drawn which, while they may be considered somewhat grim, can

guide the quest for genuine immortality.

(1) There is no way to resurrect the “I-ness” of a fully dead


individual.

(2) There is no way to preserve the “I-ness” of an individual without


preserving the spatiotemporal continuity of that individual’s physical body,


allowing for incremental modifications to that body.

Facing uncomfortable truths can indeed be a prerequisite to

genuine, life-reinforcing progress. The conclusions above do indeed suggest

that the quest for indefinite life is more difficult than some might have

thought, as only the preservation of the uninterrupted functioning of an

individual’s body could bring it about. Individuals who have already fully died

(leaving aside the ambiguities and uncertainties entailed in cryonic

preservation) have, unfortunately, already irreversibly lost their “I-nesses”,

although it is still conceivable that future technologies will render their

past experiences of immense benefit to


others. The focus of life extension should therefore be the elimination of

disease and senescence, the repair of the body, and its gradual, piecewise

augmentation via biotechnology, nanotechnology, and electronic technology. The

result of such endeavors could, in fact, be compatible with some of the

projections of futurists like Ray Kurzweil, who envision a world where human

consciousness is improved via electronic means to be orders of magnitude more

powerful than it is today. Provided that

the underlying system that facilitates the “I-ness” is preserved as a separate system and allowed to

function continuously amid a sequence of incremental improvements, there is no

reason why human faculties and durability could not be enhanced without bound. We

who are still alive can still reap the fruits of potentially limitless future

progress, if we manage to survive to see the breakthroughs.



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