Wednesday, April 06, 2005

Invoking Science Fiction to Make a Point

Somehow it seems inappropriate to cite a Glenn Reynolds column the day after publishing as it would a day-old Instapundit post. So sue me for having misplaced the link until now.

The good professor looks at how the Terri Schiavo case has forced the philosophical underpinnings of the concepts of life and death into the spotlight, especially given the state of technology today. The article itself is quite good, but I found some fertile ground in a column he wrote previously.

In the earlier column, he refers to the novel Permutation City by Dale Egan. That story is built aroung the concept of uploading copies of people's brains into computers and running them in simulation. Mechnaistically speaking, there would be no difference between the flesh and blood person and the person in the computer.

If he were to re-write that article, I think Prof. Reynolds would instead use Altered Carbon and Broken Angels by Richard K. Morgan. In those novels, the copies of minds can not only be uploaded into computers but into different bodies as well. Morgan's concept taps into my idea about the relationship between body and mind/soul, namely that the body is only the support system for the mind.

At this time, medicine is able to transplant virtually every organ in the human body with one very notable exception: the brain. Even if such a feat were accomplished, I don't think that anyone would say that it was not, in actuality, a body transplant. Who would wake up? Clearly it would be the brain "donor", not the person whose face we would be looking at.

From books, lets head to the movies and in particular the most philosophical movie to come out in recent times: The Matrix. The first concept to come up is reality, what is real if our senses can be totally deceived? The second is one of identity, who are we if our experiences of ourselves is false? Both questions rest on the same assumption, that there is something there (mind, soul, whichever) to experience and interact with the world. The self is defined in relation to everything else, and I believe that death occurs when one is no longer capable of considering and interacting, at least within the mind, with the outside world. One can still be alive while paralyzed and unable to communicate so long as one can still think about oneself and the world outside. It doesn't matter if that awareness is in a computer or a body. If you doubt that, consider if the people unaware of the Matrix were alive or not. Surely one can not have different answers to that merely based on the viewpoint of inside or outside the Matrix.

Sorry to leave this one hanging, but I'm going to have to rent some movies to get these ideas a bit better fleshed out. In particular, comparing The Matrix to Dark City. Discuss amongst yourselves if you wish.


Sean from DocintheBox said...

Maybe Glenn doesn't have the wealth of good scifi floating around in his head that you do. Altered Carbon was an interesting read but I think we're a little far away from downloading information from our brains. Another good book to look at if you're searching this angle is The First Immortal by James Halperin.

Winston Wade (Gamer) said...

Maybe I do have more Sci-Fi cluttering my brain, but it was the good professor who first turned me onto Altered Carbon.