February 26, 2004

Let's get literary (and then, philosophical)

Posted by Arcane Gazebo at February 26, 2004 9:31 PM

I finished The Uplift War the other day. Overall it wasn't bad, but a step down from its predecessor (Startide Rising). There wasn't the same level of tension throughout, and I must confess I liked the dolphin characters of Startide much better than the chimpanzees of Uplift War. And there was a problem with suspension of disbelief.

I'll buy the extrapolations of chimpanzee behavior to a society of sentient beings. I'll accept that the alien race subjugating humanity basically consists of large chickens. (Actually, I tended to envision the Gubru as somewhere between Tiiba in demon form and the avian race of Legend of Mana.) I'll buy into hyperspace travel without major relativistic difficulties because it's necessary, and I'll believe the psi powers because it's done so well. I'll even accept that low-tech guerilla forces wielding crossbows can be effective against highly trained soldiers with ridiculously advanced technology (partly because I enjoy this RPG story so much). But, I'm sorry, the climactic scene piled on so many handy coincidences, and wrapped everything up so neatly, that it shot right past the boundary of believability. At ludicrous speed. David Brin writes "hard sci-fi", meaning the science is (mostly) realistic, but it seems sometimes like his plot defeats the purpose. You may recall that I had the same complaint about Sundiver, the first book in the series. Somehow the second book was better in this regard, though it too was pushing it at times.

So I'm off the David Brin for now, and have started Altered Carbon, which has been a lot of fun so far. This is a gritty, noir-ish sci-fi novel, but if it seems strange to describe such a thing as "fun", see the above paragraph. The premise of this one is that technology has been invented that digitizes a human mind so that it can be stored in a computer and downloaded later into another body. This effectively means death is no longer permanent, since someone who dies can be restored from backup, assuming a new body is available. Of course bodies aren't cheap, so only the rich are truly immortal, while those of lesser means go into storage, presumably on a big hard drive somewhere, renting out a "sleeve" for special occasions.

There's a lot of entertainment to be found in this, like in one of the early scenes where the protagonist, a private detective, is hired to investigate a murder -- hired, in fact, by the victim. (This setting is dying to be made into a role-playing game.) On top of that, there's a religious twist: Catholics believe that the digitization process does not include the soul, and refuse to be downloaded into a new body.

One of the characters in the book at one point delivers a short tirade of the sort that one might find on this site about religion obstructing scientific progress, but on this issue I wonder if these fictional Catholics don't have a point. I would never speak of "the soul" in any non-metaphorical sense, but there is something that bugs me about this process; I do not think it would comfort me to know that the information in my mind at the time of my death would be transferred to a new body afterwards, even if the body were an identical copy as well. I'm not convinced my identity carries over to the copy. My thread of consciousness is cut at my death, and a new thread begins that believes it is a continuation of mine, but is it really?

Imagine my brain is uploaded one minute before my death, and one minute afterwards it is downloaded into a clone body. There is no apparent distinction in this case between the clone and the original, had the original not died but merely blacked out for two minutes. But if the copy mind is downloaded into the clone one minute before the death of the original, in time to observe it, it will appear to the clone that a separate person has died, and to the original it will seem that it is a separate person that lives on, rather than a resurrection of the self. So doesn't this view apply as well to the case where the clone's creation is delayed a bit?

On the other hand, maybe I'm thinking about it the wrong way. When I fall asleep at night, that day's consciousness ends, in a sense. Dreams aside, the only difference between falling asleep and dying is whether I wake up in the morning. But isn't my next-morning-self a different consciousness than the previous-night-self? If I fell into a wormhole during the night, traveled back in time, and woke up to see myself falling asleep, it would seem to me that a different person is falling asleep, but it's really still me. Nevertheless, I don't worry about dying every night when I go to bed.

So the question is, if a copy of my mind were to be made and embodied after my death, would I, the person who died, "wake up" in the new body? Or would it just be a copy, a replica? Of course there's no way to tell, and it may not even be a real distinction. But I think, when one strips away the religious language, this is the same worry that the fictional Catholics of Altered Carbon are expressing.

Anyway, I'm enjoying the book.


This book sounds really cool -- I'm going to pick up a copy today.

Posted by: Tracy | February 27, 2004 7:27 AM
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