Every once in a while, I like to engage in some less-than serious philosophical thinking (by this I mean pure speculation with no serious intention of solving any problem or doing anything besides occupying some free time) – this particular time, it was about thought.
There was a great episode of Cowboy Bebop in which a cult sought immortality by uploading their souls (or minds, or selves, I don’t remember exactly) to the ‘web’. This has always been an interesting topic – one that’s received a lot better attention in sci-fi than in actual science, in my opinion. But at any rate, a really interesting subject. Every once in a while one hears about how our brains are really digital, or digital supercomputers, or something along those lines – pure nonsense, I say. Conceptual confusions, to take a page from Wittgenstein’s playbook. Stanley Jaki, in his book on the subject (entitled Brain, Mind, and Computers) commented that in every age, the mind/brain is conceived as whatever technology is most exciting, for lack of a better term. It’s been depicted as hydraulics, electrical circuits, waterworks, and in our time, its most often portrayed as a computer – unfortunately, there seems to be a rather negative side effect to this practice: it’s the tendency to take as real or concrete a metaphor that simply helps us grasp an abstract or puzzling or difficult concept.
But suppose that our self really can be uploaded to the web – again, one can find some serious discussions on this topic (seriously mistaken, in my view, but serious nonetheless) with a simple Google search. Would that pretty much end the mind/body debate (which, for the record, I think is a debate that is more misplaced that anything, but just for the sake of argument assume otherwise)? Would there be an aspect of us that is immaterial (I’m using immaterial in the classical sense – not as some weird kind of substance but in the more [say] Thomistic sense, such as the immaterial intellect)? Probably not, if its digital and can be uploaded to the internet – I have a hard time imagining how something digital can also be immaterial. So we’d end up being material objects and nothing more – our selves (or mind, or soul, or whatever you care to call it) is simply the material part of us that survives the death of our bodies. That doesn’t seem too coherent though, but who knows. Perhaps our digital self takes the place of the immaterial soul. Maybe the word ‘digital’ is just being redefined – kind of like the word ‘nothing’ in the contemporary debate about the origin of the universe. Definitely something to look into – though I think I trust the sci-fi writers to make more sense of such an idea than the science writers.