The old folk, Time’s doting chronicles

Years, however invisible, eventually accumulate like lint in a drier. And those that were hidden in the warp and weft of the materials of our lives, announce themselves like unbidden visitors at a door. Not guests exactly, but hardly strangers, we greet them like the summons we’ve so long anticipated. And how we treat them tells us more about ourselves than the writ they bring.

I don’t want to die -I’m reasonably comfortable here- and yet I don’t want to go on and on. Already I’m forgetting many of my early years; maybe memory is limited for a reason. Maybe I am too, and the very thought of freezing my brain, or uploading my mind somewhere is as unsettling to me as purging to make more room for something I’ve already consumed to my satisfaction.

I was in a Tim Horton’s coffee shop midmorning the other day. It’s a time when the old folk gather at little tables to complain with hearing-aidless voices about what they’ve discovered no longer works. Walking into the room with my coffee and 12 grain bagel was like entering a featherless chicken coop with clucking and cackling reverberating off the walls. It took some time to pick out any words from the squawking and guffawing, but I eventually realized that the topic du jour revolved around some TV program on cryopreservation which everybody had seen the night before.

I gathered there was little argument about the value of cheating death -more about the format. My table seemed to be buried (sorry) in the whole-body section of the room who were convinced that you needed the entire thing to really be you when you were awakened. But shouts from the freeze-the-head contingent a few tables over, taunted them mercilessly about why they wanted to stick with a body that would probably be out of fashion in the future anyway.

“What do you figure,” shouted an old gentleman near me with little wisps of gossamer white hair floating out from beneath his tweed cap, “Three arms in the future?”

“No, but at least they’ll be able to sew me onto something that works, eh?” somebody shouted back.

“It’s where they sew it that I’d be worried about,” someone else yelled, and they all laughed.

Up to then, I have to admit that what little thought I given the idea of immortality, had assumed that whatever me that survived would continue to fit in -that my evolution thus far would allow me to continue to adapt to whatever I encountered. A thoughtful essay in, however, has cast a troubling shadow over my naïveté:  It was written conjointly by Francesca Minerva, a philosophy postdoc at Ghent University in Belgium, and Adrian Rorheim, a researcher and editor at the Effective Altruism Foundation, Berlin.

They begin by noting ‘Of course, we don’t currently have the means of achieving human immortality… But two hypothetical options have so far attracted the most interest and attention: rejuvenation technology, and mind uploading… Gerontologists such as Aubrey de Grey argue that growing old is a disease that we can circumvent by having our cells replaced or repaired at regular intervals… This deep makeover would ‘turn back the clock’ on your body, leaving you physiologically younger than your actual age. You would, however, remain just as vulnerable to death from acute trauma – that is, from injury and poisoning, whether accidental or not – as you were before.’ And you’d probably need a fair amount of money, both to afford the continuing treatments as well as to guard against risks -some of which would no doubt be from the population that couldn’t afford such therapy.

To me, the more frightening option, though, would be mind uploading, ‘in which your brain is digitally scanned and copied onto a computer. This method presupposes that consciousness is akin to software running on some kind of organic hard-disk – that what makes you you is the sum total of the information stored in the brain’s operations, and therefore it should be possible to migrate the self onto a different physical substrate or platform.’ The idea doesn’t appeal to me for a variety of reasons, but the essay offered some terrifying possibilities that I hadn’t thought of:  ‘[W]e cannot predict what the actual upload would feel like to the mind being transferred… What if the whole process, including your very existence as a digital being, is so qualitatively different from biological existence as to make you utterly terrified or even catatonic? If so, what if you can’t communicate to outsiders or switch yourself off?’ After all, that which is me is a product of organic evolution that has developed in an organic world; all that my brain ‘knows’ is predicated on that. ‘Some philosophers, such as David Chalmers, think there is a possibility that your upload would appear functionally identical to your old self without having any conscious experience of the world.’

‘Another problem arises with the prospect of copying your uploaded mind and running the copy simultaneously with the original. One popular position in philosophy is that the youness of you depends on remaining a singular person.’ Even identical twins are separate entities with unique experiences that shape their thoughts.

So much to worry about, eh? I can remember a time when you just up and died. You didn’t have to have a PhD in Philosophy to decide what to put in your living will, and you could feel good about deciding to donate whichever of your organs were salvageable to somebody whose needs suddenly trumped your own.

Frankly, if the truth be known, I don’t really trust the future. Sure, some historians may decide to resuscitate a few sample specimens to talk to, but why in the world would they want to revive the rest? I’m sure it would be expensive to do, and maybe mostly what they’d get would be vegetables at first, anyway. Personally, I’d rather be a pile of bones than a babbling cabbage.

Or would it be like Jurassic Park, and the revivees would put in an enclosure somewhere for kids to tease… or scientists to test their theories on?

Nope. There’s just too much uncertainty to risk damaging all those wonderfully coloured patches sewn to my quilt over the years -too much of a gamble letting someone else I don’t even know, borrow it for all time.

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