Uploading your brain

In the Steven Pinker book, “How the Mind Works,” he describes the following thought experiment (not his own): presume it is possible, in a person’s brain, to replace a single neuron with some kind of technological equivalent — a special wire that passes signals exactly the way a neuron would. Now replace not a single neuron, but 10 of them, then 100, then 1 billion, until you have replaced every neuron in a person’s brain with this replacement wire. At what point, if ever, does that person stop being “them”?

I’m reminded of that thought experiment while reading this review for a new book called “Connectome.” The book takes a skeptical but not dismissive look at one of the goals of the trans-humanism movement: to effectively and totally map the complex behaviors and connections of an individual brain’s neurons so that people could “upload” themselves to a computer.

The review breaks it down…

The central question for Seung—and the one that also keeps the transhumanists on tenterhooks—is whether you are your connectome. If you could deduce every connection point of every brain cell, the strength with which each neuron fires, and the way these firing patterns change as the cells interact with each other, would, in fact, you be left with a copy of you?

I’m dubious about this for two reasons. One, even if it were possible to totally map out an individual’s brain, you’re effectively only creating a clone of that person. I might be able to create a clone of myself, a technological marvel that could continue my philosophical and musical endeavors, as well as adding to my vast repertoire of sexual pleasuring techniques, but that would not be me. The real me, a biological entity, will eventually wither and die. Unless someone can explain how the consciousness in my body could somehow be passed to this clone, I fail to see how we could live forever. (And this isn’t even getting into the fact that we have a very vague, ethereal understanding of what consciousness is.)

Secondly, I’m largely of the opinion that our experience as individuals is not simply a matter of what’s in our brains, but in how our brain interacts with our body e.g. the sensations it gets from the body, the feelings generated by hormones coming from non-brain organs in the body etc. This software simile of me would have none of that, and likely very quickly evolve into an entity seeming very different from “myself.”

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