Michael Battalio

Friday, June 15, 2012

Serious conversations (part 37):

        This series is a continuation of my conversations with an atheist friend of mine. These are my edited responses from that conversation. The thirty-sixth through thirty-ninth entries deal with extending one’s life artificially.

        What if instead of transferring consciousness to a computer it was merely copied to a machine while your original consciousness died with your body?  I would not be satisfied with that.  My self must be moved, not copied, otherwise I would still be dying.  It wouldn't really be me inside a machine, just a copy.

        We already replace some body parts with non-biological items, but those parts that we replace are not the parts we define as ourselves. We replace arms, legs, hearts; we supplement our body with glasses, hearing aids, dialysis. But we live in our brains. We don’t live in our arms, ears, hearts, etc. It means a lot more to replace something we don’t understand - the brain- than it is to replace something we do - the heart is just a collection of muscles and valves with appropriate mechanisms for timing. Everything but the brain is a collection of reasonably well understood physical processes that follow a predefined set of rules and perform a predefined set of tasks.

        When it comes down to it, our brain is just a bunch of electrical connections--a very, very large number of electrical connections, but still just electrics. If there were some way to maps those connections, we could reproduce those connections, not just in another brain but mechanically.

        The difference, as I see it, between the arm and the brain is the number of electrical connections between nerves or neurons, but I really don’t know. I am a lowly physicist with very limited knowledge of biology. Although I don’t know how to express it scientifically, there is clearly a difference between my arm and my brain. I can cut off both my arms and legs and still be me but I can go without my head. Similarly, if I could find a way to nourish my brain without digestive, respiration, or circulatory processes, I would still be me.

        What about genetic engineering to extend the natural lifespan of the human body? I think the big fear with genetic engineering is that we fear people having enough money to engineer “regular” members of the race to such a level of inferiority that they become a lower class. Also there are probably a lot of ways to screw up genetic engineering so there would be the layperson’s fear of coming out of it with a third eye or some such. It is possible that science will figure out how to engineer aging out of our DNA so that we “naturally” live forever.

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