Friday, October 30, 2009

Mindscan by Robert J. Sawyer

A great exploration of issues of consciousness, self-hood/identity and societal reactions to technological change. The basic plot is that in a few decades people who are going to die can pay for their consciousness to be transferred into a synthetic body. The original goes to the moon to live out its days, while the new copy lives out its life on Earth will all the rights of a person… or so it is thought until a legal battle challenges this notion of personhood. I quite appreciated thinking about issues of consciousness and the potential transference of it for the hours it took to read this book. Unfortunately, it wasn’t that well written. I dislike saying it, but it does seem that the reputation Sci-fi has for having interesting plots and ideas but poorer character development and general prose was once again supported by reading this book. Now, it wasn’t terrible, but for such a well-regarded book/author, I thought it would have been a bit better in style. As usual, I guess it depends on what one is seeking. Moving on…

For those with exposure to cognitive science, especially from a philosophical point of view, you’ll probably appreciate that Sawyer mentions Libet, Searle, Penrose, Turing and even Dennett. Unfortunately, his treatment of the first three is misleading at best. Yes, it is a work of fiction, but Libet’s experiments are a bit flawed and Searle’s Chinese Room thought experiment is confused at best. Further, Penrose’s notion of consciousness being in the microtubules doesn’t really jive either. Sawyer does say Dennett doesn’t believe in qualia, but I think he really should have hit the main point of Dennett’s arguments about consciousness: If you open up the brain, there is nobody home; there is no specific centre of special place within you in which consciousness resides. Consequently, if “you” are not is a specific place, you are also not in a specific time. Meaning, there is a smear of time and space in which various processes come together to enable consciousness (which really should be defined as it has multiple means). When you “experience” something, this event can have multiple inputs, edits or revisions, and different levels of access to such processes. It just might be true that there isn’t (cannot be?) a moment of consciousness.

Regardless, the book was useful because it made me more seriously think about the complexities of transferring a mind/person. I realize the process is extraordinarily complicated, that was not new, but revisiting the idea of just what is transferred and how that might work was interesting. Let’s say you can transfer your brain/mind/self – advanced technology would make a complete scan of your entire neural structures and processes and ensure that all incoming sensory stimuli was received in the same way that allows the creation of you in the world, acting on things. This mindscan would first, one assumes, be in a computer before it is placed in another brain/body. Of course, the scan (let’s assume) wouldn’t cause the original to disappear, so that means you’d have two (or more) entities with VERY similar thoughts and feelings (they would start to diverge immediately as they are now having different experiences). All of this is leading up to the confusion/intrigue I experience when I try to think of another me having similar thoughts and feelings, feelings of being unique and special, but having no access to those thoughts.
It is quite difficult to imagine someone else has your experience… or more that you could just transfer all of this and then continue in your own existence. Alternatively, if I met and socialized with a copy of my mind it would be fascinating to see how in sync we would be and after repeated encounters it might actually be easy to see how someone else could have my thoughts. But I digress…

I liked the ideas in this book and it Sawyer really did have excellent content to explore but that exploration could have been better.


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