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The Forgotten Philosophies Of Science Fiction

On the second "page" of a Popular Science article from 2004 (does anyone like paginated articles on the web?), Is Science Fiction About to Go Blind?, author Gregory Mone has this to say:

One plot device that turns up frequently in Stross and Doctorow's stories is mind uploading, in which characters create electronic copies of their brains on silicon. A technique first proposed by Carnegie Mellon computer scientist Hans Moravec, mind uploading is not to be confused with elaborate virtual reality headsets that allow your mind to exist in a simulated environment while your body remains in the real world. Mind uploading creates an entirely separate version of you. This new you would be made of bits instead of blood; you'd be free of illness, mortality and other drawbacks of corporeal existence (such as neck pain from staring too long at a computer screen). In Doctorow's first novel, Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom, people create and update electronic copies of their brains the way we now back up important documents; in the event of an accident, doctors simply restore the last saved version to a new body.

There is a fundamental alteration in the subject matter, but it is glossed over as Mone smoothly transitions from one subject to another, possibly without realizing it. The result is that it gives rise to an error that has become dismayingly common amongst today's speculative science fiction writers, where little or no substantive differentiation is made between a copy and an original. This article blithely ignores the difference between, in one sentence, "an entirely separate version of you" (emphasis added) and, in the next, "you'd be free of illness, mortality, and other drawbacks of corporeal existence" (emphasis, again, added to make the point). It fails to keep in mind the simple fact that the copy of you is not the you from whom a copy has been made. It lacks the simplest philosophical understanding of identity.

Accelerate Too Much And You Might Miss The Scenery

Mention is made in the quoted paragraph of both Stross and Doctorow, two of the world's evidently pre-eminent Singularity fiction writers, and especially of Doctorow's novel Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom. They both have a fast-paced manner of dumping ideas on the reader, and their writings provide significant grist for inspiration and philosophy in the interested futurist. Both Stross' Accelerando (on its way to publication as of the writing of the quoted article) and Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom make the same error of confused concepts as the journalist who interviewed them for the article.

In Accelerando, the error occurs in that Stross never even seems to take notice of the fact there is any difference in subject between digital cloning and actual, personal ascension to some higher, immortal form of continued existence. No meaningful recognition of the fact that an original entity and its copy are in fact distinct entities, sharing memories and modes of behavior but not continuous, self-aware consciousness, ever seems to arise at all. The fact it never addresses the matter of whether a simulation of a human mind is truly self-aware in the same way as readers such as the intended audience of this essay are self-aware is a relatively minor oversight beside the incredible failure of attention to the concern that a copy is not the original, no matter how indistinguishable it may seem to someone on the far end of a VoIP connection.

If anything, the problem is worse in Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom. In that novel, Doctorow actually introduces a character early on who recognizes the difference between the original and the copy, or even between one copy and another. This character is an oddity amongst the terminally hip technological literati with iProduct sensibilities we in 2013 might find strangely familiar despite the novel's vintage a decade ago, three years before the iPod gained notable popularity and half a dozen years before the launch of the iPhone. The rest of this character's peers uncritically embrace a world where minds are backed up and restored to new meatsuits when an old body gets a few crow's feet or gets run down by a truck, with the same bland acceptance as many Linux users embraced Mac laptops a few years after the novel's publication as their "usable Linux" systems despite the closed source software and control-freakish user manipulation of Apple Inc. He stands apart from them in that he refuses to risk his personal continuity as an individual by replacing himself with a copy. He is not the main character. He is not, in fact, even a major character. He appears essentially for color, presents an easy target for a little friendly ridicule by the main character who dismisses his concerns as outdated and meaningless, and he disappears again for most of the book. When he finally returns near the end, he appears to accept the whole ethic of the authenticated counterfeit self without any meaningful explanation to help the reader understand the change.

There are essentially two obvious ways to interpret how Doctorow handled this heterodox character in the midst of his story of disposable selves. One is that Doctorow uses him as an effigy to burn, mocking the concerns of more thoughtful science fiction authors and philosophers than himself. The other is that Doctorow accepts the notion that everyone dies, and there is no true immortality other than that observed by others who see the continuation of a "you" that is indistinguishable from the original except by the experiences of life that help shape a personality. This latter seems more likely in light of the final act taken by the character who values his individual continuity more than the others, which is to upload a copy of himself to a system floating around in deep space waiting for the universe to end, killing off the meatsuited version of himself living amongst others on Earth. This is not an explicit explanation of his choice, but it is an explanation that may come to mind as a possible justification for it, especially if the reader imagines an off-screen death (and restoration from backup) so that the current version of him is actually a new version struggling with despair at his inability to maintain his continuous existence.

If the reader accepts this explanation for that one character's behavior, and stops there, it makes the whole novel a bit more palatable. If the reader continues thinking about the behavior of everyone else in the story, however, a problem still remains: How is it that nobody else questions notional simulations of immortality at the expense of acts of suicide?

In a later collaboration (built to some degree around smaller, earlier collaborations) titled Rapture of the Nerds, Stross and Doctorow double down on their facile dismissal of the concerns of identity. In this novel, it is the main character who is presented as an odd throwback resisting the obvious (suicidal) path to join up-to-date technorati who understand the importance of a form of the self that can be backed up and restored from backup when necessary. The main character's reasonable objections to the idea of uploading a copy of the mind and destroying the original in its organic housing forms a consistent thread in the character's perspective on the world, at first. That character deals with the emotional trauma of deadbeat parents who abandoned the character as a child by uploading the contents of their heads and committing biological suicide. The main character understandably harbors a great deal of resentment for the digital reproductions that exist after the fact, and for the memories of the original parents who have ceased to exist.

Eventually, as part of a bid to save the human race's homeworld Earth, the digital clone of the character's mother arrives in a robotic body to kill the main character, deconstruct the brain as part of the process of copying the contents of the character's mind, and create a digital clone. This clone's subsequent usefulness in the work of rescuing Earth from digital entities who feel there is no point in waiting for the rest of humanity to upload before turning Earth itself into a resource for more processing power is distinctly hindered for a time by the anger of the main character's digital clone at the murder of the original main character by the digital clone of its own mother. In fact, the word "murder" is exactly what the new main character (initially an aparently perfect digital clone of the original's mind) uses to describe what was done. In time, however, a moment comes when this digital version of the main character changes its mind, accepts it all as wonderful, and goes on with its life with an implied sense of disdain for previous rejection of immortality by suicide. This transformation of perspective occurs in an instant as though the author just reached into the story and flipped a switch on whatever hardware was running the character simulation.

Unless the reader imagines some barely hinted, explicitly discarded notion of the main character digital clone having its source code manipulated to produce this switch, then expands upon something that in fact comprises a fraction of a percent of the novel's attention with no sense of attached closure and no particular proximity to the climax or denouement into the whole plot of the book, the result is an even less satisfying expression of willful ignorance on the subject of individual continuity than Accelerando. There is no reasonable excuse for the relevant character's change of heart (or code path branching, more literally) like the one a reader might imagine for the character positioned as some kind of luddite in Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom. A reader really concerned with these issues, including any real philosopher of even mediocre talent and minimal acquaintance with rationalism, may be in danger of being offended by the backhanded treatment given to such an important matter.

Learning To Be Thoughtful Through Retrospection

About twenty-three years ago, more than a decade before both Accelerando and Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom were published, and more than two decades before Rapture of the Nerds, an author named Greg Egan (mentioned in passing in the article Is Science Fiction About to Go Blind?) wrote the short story Learning to be Me. In it, he describes a world where the quest for immortality has taken a turn down an interesting path, where a "jewel" implanted in a person's head at a very young age mirrors its host's thinking until it reaches perfect parity. As the story begins, in the words of its protagonist and first-person narrator:

I was six years old when my parents told me that there was a small, dark jewel inside my skull, learning to be me.

In adulthood, a "switch" event occurs, where the person undergoes a procedure that recenters the individual from the fragile organic computer of the brain to the more durable "jewel", thus allowing for greater personal longevity. Unlike Stross and Doctorow, Egan takes the question of clone versus original very seriously, even if the clone is accreted over time by shared experience with the original rather than "backed up" or copied at a convenient instant. Where deconstruction of the brain is a required part of the copying process in Rapture of the Nerds, necessarily killing the original organic entity in the case of the contents of the main character's mind being uploaded, in this case the copy process is external to the actual contents of the original's mind, but the experience of it is regarded as continuous, with the entity copied in the device implanted in a person's head presumably unaware whether it is original or copy until the "switch", leaving the only available witnesses of the "switch" after the fact with the distinct impression that there is only ever one, continuous entity.

Learning to be Me is the story of what happens when something goes wrong, and the "jewel" starts diverging from the original before the "switch". Egan's treatment of the subject is thoughtful, ignores no necessary perspective with any dismissive brush of the literary hand, and brings something new into consideration of what "immortality" through cloning might mean. Like the writings of Stross and Doctorow on this subject, it takes a side; in some ways, it takes more than one side, but does so in a consistent and intriguing manner. Unlike those of Stross and Doctorow, it does not implicitly declare the "other side" meaningless and apparently worthy only of ridicule in the end by the expedient of discarding its concerns without resolution.

William Gibson's Winter Market, a short story that deals with the deeply troubling human fallout of the concept of upload posthumanism, was published about half a decade before Egan's Learning to be Me. In it, the perspective character -- who serves in some respects more as a deeply involved observer of the journey of a distinct main character than as the main character himself -- makes the acquaintance of a woman who, for various reasons, would very much like to shed her physical form. In it, neither of these characters really takes the position of regarding the digital clone as the continuation of the same entity as the original. In fact, Case (the perspective character) quite clearly, explicitly, and directly evinces the position that the upload act for the main character Lise would be an act of suicide. She, in turn, essentially takes the position that it is worth it either way, caring very little at all about prospective individual discontinuity, even preferring it over the physical limitations of her biological life. The uncritical acceptance of the idea of digital immortality as maintaining individual continuity in the story is not so much directly represented as felt by the reader, in the form of a sort of understood context in the background, where the upload personality can become some form of perpetual manifestation of celebrity whose fandom so little about the individual's nonpublic experience that it assigns the conditions of some form of fantasy to the digital entity in question, in a logical extreme derived from the current popular fascination with celebrity.

Winter Market takes no clear position on the matter of individual continuity in relation to the process of creating an immortal digital clone. It regards the matter from the perspective of an outsider, who can only observe what happens to the person whose mind has been copied into a simulation and believe whatever he chooses to believe. In this respect, it reads as a faithful and evocative representation of meaningful human encounters with the relevant technological answer to the problem of mortality and biological imitation, and addresses the matter in a far more mature and thoughtful manner than speculative transhumanist fiction's more contemporary crop of popular authors.

These stories seem to comprise some significant markers of the last gasps of philosophy in science fiction.

In My Day We Walked Uphill Both Ways

Some points immediately stand out as interesting:

Speculative fiction authors who have more recently cut their teeth on the interdisciplinary technological and scientific grist of our contemporary singularity-prone age are generally able to fling themselves head first into experimental examinations of half-baked futuristic progress scenarios with wild abandon and to the great inspiration and delight of readers, more so than authors of earlier eras, as these newer authors are adept at adapting themselves to the frenetic pace of change that looms before us in the immediate future of cutting-edge civilization. The sad conclusion, however, is that these authors also seem incapable of incorporating the depth of philosophical contemplation that informed their science fiction roots in decades past, leaving us with an ultimately empty and superficial new body of literature, answering none of the really important questions that face us today and in years to come.

Speculative science fiction, after all, runs in a feedback loop with the practice of science in fact, each finding ways to inform and inspire the other, to help us cope with what we find in the other, and ultimately to help us find value in it. Philosophy is the forgotten third player in that loop, often ignored as irrelevant, but without philosophy in science fact and fiction all we get is innovation stifling patents based on statistical studies of generational mutation patterns in fruit flies and Twilight with lasers. These fall short of the technological and literary future in which many of us would like to live.

The Apology

There are, of course, still authors writing excellent works of speculative fiction with a real depth of philosophy informing the construction of their tales. Consider Egan and Gibson, still writing, for instance. Consider Neal Stephenson, most of whose novels seem built around a really intriguing and insightful idea or two per novel as explorations of those ideas. Most of these authors, however, seem to have given up on singularity fiction, to the point where Stephenson has been shifting gears between something like the present day, alternate worlds, and historical fiction (sometimes more than one of these in a single book), and a third of Gibson's solo novel corpus as of this writing is made up of "day after tomorrow" flavored work.

The fast-paced transhumanist world appears to have largely been surrendered to those who replace philosophy with technophilia, but deeply meaningful speculative works are still available.

Maybe, some day, I will get around to finishing one of the several singularity and transhumanist unfinished works of speculative fiction over which I have agonized, off and on, for a couple of decades now. Maybe they'll be worse than Rapture of the Nerds. I will just leave my apology for that failure here, in case the day ever comes when I finish them.

written: 2013-11-04

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