By Daniel Tarade
Religion is pervasive. It used to be everything but it is still everywhere. In Canada, a recent survey found that only 12% of Canadians deny the existence of God. I can understand why religion became such a pillar of society. Imbued with sentience, humans came to ask questions. Questions that they couldn't answer. Further, existence used to be a miserable affair, at least from my outsider perspective. Life expectancy was between 20 and 30 years for most of history.[i] Most of your life was spent labouring with few comforts. In such a society, religion provided an escape. A belief in heaven helped you reconcile miscarriage after miscarriage, infant death after infant death. Church was an oasis where you are assured that a powerful being(s) is there to help you.
Eventually, a change begins to ferment. Other institutions begin providing alternative answers to questions normally under the purview of religion. Scientific institutions are relied upon increasingly to solve problems that at one point would be brought to saints and shamans and seers. The biologists are fighting to increase life expectancy and maximal life span. I have previously discussed lifespan extension and how my own personal feelings on the matter were quite tarantula-like, as written by Nietzsche. But it is not only the biologists who conceive of ways to overcome our human limitations. Not by a long shot. Physicists as well are putting forward different world views. Some of these views make religion explicitly unnecessary. For one reason or another, certain physicists hold true a theory that makes possible immortality. I discuss three such theories. I aim to share these three vignettes to highlight what my friend astutely observed: religion and science are perhaps more similar than we consider.
First, I want to discuss the idea of quantum suicide. To follow along with this thought experiment, a cursory understanding of quantum mechanics and Schrödinger’s cat is necessary. In both though experiments, Schrödinger’s cat and the quantum suicide variation, a reader has to imagine a box that kills its inhabitant with 50% likelihood within a given time frame. Inside the box is a means of killing its inhabitant, whether it be a vial of poisonous gas or a powerful laser, that is activated upon the detection of the decay of a single radioactive particle by an incredibly sensitive Geiger counter. The 50% likelihood of the particle decaying is related to quantum uncertainty. From the perspective of an observer outside the box, the inhabitant can be thought of as both alive and dead following the experiment (in a state of superposition), until the box is opened and the outcome is recorded. However, instead of a cat inside the box, imagine that you, the observer, climbs in the box with a little notebook. Based on the Copenhagen interpretation of quantum mechanics, following the experiment, you will either have died or not, due to the collapse of the wave function. However, an alternative interpretation of quantum mechanics, the many-worlds interpretation, states that following one experiment, both possibilities exist – the one where you died and one where the you lived. These possibilities exist simultaneously in separate worlds. Now, from your perspective, do you ever die? The idea of quantum immortality says no. As an observer spend more time in the box, the number of branching universes increases. In all but one of these worlds the observer is dead. However, the observer is bound to its consciousness in the form of its one living survivor. Applying this to the real world, the implication is that every person is functionally immortal. Does anybody believe this? Well, the many-world interpretation originated with Hugh Everett III, who was quite convinced that he was immortal, in keeping with the idea of quantum immortality. More tragically, his daughter cited the idea of quantum immortality in her suicide note – she wanted to join her father in another world. So, should one take this seriously? Well, one popularizer (Max Tegmark) of the quantum immortality concedes that the concept does not apply to organic death, which does not occur in a binary manner. Further, other physicists have discussed the idea as ridiculous and applied simple mathematics to debunk the theory.[ii] In accordance with the idea of quantum immortality, everyone is immortal. Thus, the probability of one having yet to ascend to the afterlife is zero (i.e. because the afterlife is infinite). The afterlife, in this scenario, is aging to the point where you are much older than one can ever expect to live and, thus, your old age must be the result of immortality. Since you and I are all within the reasonable lifespan of human (i.e. younger than 130), it is mathematically shown that you are indeed mortal. Discussion of the feasibility of quantum immortality is actually besides the point. What I really want to highlight is that there exists physicists who interpret their reality in such a way that immortality is the consequence. Who needs religion?
A second theory pertains to whether our universe is, in fact, simulated. Several years ago, a conference, attended by physicists and mathematicians, was held to discuss the possibility that our universe was in fact a computer simulation. Quite humorous, to me, was that Neils Degrase Tyson suggested that there was a fifty-fifty chance that our universe was a simulation. One common thread among the theories that I am discussing, as they pertain to immortality, is that they are untestable. To assign a distinct probability is laughable. What is some evidence that we exist in a simulation? There is a mathematical proof provided by Nick Bolstrum, who provides a formula for which three solutions exist; one, that the probability of civilisation becoming ‘post-human’ is zero; two, that the probability of a ‘post-human’ society running ancestral simulations is zero; three, that the probability that we are simulated is 100%.[iii] The logic is that if ‘post-human’ civilisations exist and that they run ancestral simulation, the percentage of simulated individuals would quickly and vastly outnumber non-simulated individuals. Further empirical evidence came from physicist Sylvester James Gates who discovered buried within string theory formulas evidence of self-correcting code, which would not be out of place in a string of computer code. But what I found most interesting were the implications that physicists extrapolated from this theory. Gates discussed the possibility of a simulated afterlife, where those simulating our existence may include a heaven. Rich Terille, a NASA astronomer, holds a similar view. It is tempting to construct heaven scientifically. Nick Bolstrum draws an analogy between those simulating our universe and an omnipotent, omniscient ‘god.’ Further, the possibility that those simulating our universe are, in turn, themselves simulated and so forth, conjures ideas of a cosmological panopticon, where each civilisation capable of simulating another behaves morally.[ii] Perhaps not coincidentally, Gates himself is a religious individual who does not see a conflict between science and spirituality. That being said, Everett III was a committed atheist, albeit one who believed that they were immortal. Further, Max Tegmark concedes that although it is logically possible that we are living in a simulation they do not believe that it is probable. In a simulated universe our laws of physics appear to become secondary to the laws that govern the world of the simulators. It does not surprise me that this notion is rejected by someone like Tegmark, who popularized the idea of quantum immortality. In a simulated universe, all bets are off.
Lastly, I want to talk about a more practical physics that ultimately purports immortality as an outcome. Whereas the other two ideas in physics are less commonly discussed and more metaphysical (and untestable), the idea of mind-uploading has pervaded society and culture. Rather than a discussion carried out in esoteric language by physicists, mind-uploading has become a mainstay in science fiction. One other feature of mind-uploading is that it is a human endeavour and not merely the consequence of proposed universal laws. People are steering this ship and it is gaining momentum. Progress has been in the steadfast march on human limitations. A complete connectivity map of the nematode worm (c. elegans) brain was published in 1986. In 2012, a proposal for simulating the neuromuscular system of c. elegans was published.[iv] The kicker is that researchers placed the simulated circuity, comprised of 302 neurons, in a robot made from legos. Without any programmed instructions, the robot moves in response to environmental cues. Work has also progressed on simulating the human brain, the 10 year Human Brain Project having been launched in 2013.
The connection between mind-uploading and religion is obvious. Rather than ascending to heaven, humans might one day transcend their biological form and live an exceedingly long, if not immortal, life. Faith in priests. Faith in scientists. The motivations underlying religion and transhumanism are also somewhat similar. With the decline in humanism, that belief that humans are unique and important on a cosmological scale, people adapt in different ways. Some accept that our lives are not particularly important and instead focus on living creative lives. Others instead fight the feeling of dread that is sometimes concomitant with the loss of humanist ideals by instead looking towards transhumanism. If humans are merely smart animals should we not strive to become something more? What if we can augment, improve, transcend via technology? These are questions central to the transhumanist dogma. Mind-uploading is simply one application of transhumanism.
Although the motivations underlying sincere religious conviction and transhumanism appear similar, the religious individual and transhumanist are often mutually exclusive. It has been found that those who are older and religious are more likely to condemn mind-uploading.[v] An older survey similarly found that those with strong religious belief were more likely to condemn a variety of transcendent technologies, including cryopreservation and mind-uploading.[vi] Conversely, those who science fiction hobbyists are more likely to approve of mind-uploading.[v] In addition to these cultural effects, those who have death anxiety and who condemn suicide are more approving of mind-uploading.[v] However, when confronted with acute reminders of mortality, such as the devastating 2011 earthquake in New Zealand, people still turn to religion for comfort.[vii] Belief in mind-uploading or in heaven are two ways of coping with hardships of life, with the former becoming increasingly popular with new generations.
Among the transhumanists, Nick Bolstrom is a familiar name. In his transhumanism FAQ, he writes that "[t]ranshumanism is a naturalistic outlook. At the moment, there is no hard evidence for supernatural forces or irreducible spiritual phenomena, and transhumanists prefer to derive their understanding of the world from rational modes of inquiry, especially the scientific method." Unlike religion, transhumanists and physicists claim superiority by appealing to the scientific method. However, the goal is the same. A transhumanist and religious individual both hold our flawed, human lives in contempt. They seek to transcend the physical. Rather than opposing world views, religion and transhumanism are two sides of the same coin. People originally turned to religion to cope with the pain and confusion that pervaded their lives. The transhumanist is much the same. It takes a certain privilege and comfort to be able to accept that our lives are the extent of our existence. I cannot blame a person born into abject poverty for finding comfort in Christian teachings. Similarly, I cannot blame an individual living with unfulfilled dreams or disillusioned with society for finding hope in the prospects of mind-uploading. On a more personal note, I find that the same reason I am not religious is the same reason I reject the new religion of transhumanism. I am privileged in being able to contemplate, to discuss, to interact. I don't want for more.
[i] Preston, S. H. (1995). Human mortality throughout history and prehistory. The state of humanity, 30-36.
[ii] Mallah, J. (2009). Many-Worlds Interpretations Can Not Imply 'Quantum Immortality'. arXiv preprint arXiv:0902.0187. In addition to a mathematical argument against quantum immortality, other arguments tackle the concept of consciousness transfer.
[iii] Bostrom, N. (2003). Are we living in a computer simulation?. The Philosophical Quarterly, 53(211), 243-255.
[iv] Palyanov, A., Khayrulin, S., Larson, S. D., & Dibert, A. (2012). Towards a virtual C. elegans: A framework for simulation and visualization of the neuromuscular system in a 3D physical environment. In silico biology, 11(3, 4), 137-147.
[v] Laakasuo, M., Drosinou, M., Koverola, M., Kunnari, A., Halonen, J., Lehtonen, N., & Palomäki, J. (2018). What makes people approve or condemn mind upload technology? Untangling the effects of sexual disgust, purity and science fiction familiarity. Palgrave Communications, 4(1), 84.
[vi] Bainbridge, W. S. (2005). The transhuman heresy. Journal of Evolution and Technology, 14(2), 91-100.
[vii] Sibley, C. G., & Bulbulia, J. (2012). Faith after an earthquake: A longitudinal study of religion and perceived health before and after the 2011 Christchurch New Zealand earthquake. PloS one, 7(12), e49648.