Is the immortal soul just a conceptual pointer? How can you tell if someone is a continuous self from one moment to the next? In Altered Carbon by Richard K. Morgan, the main character, Takeshi Kovacs, has been sentenced to 108 years in storage for his crimes. In this novel, however, it’s not a prison that he goes to nor is he put into suspended animation. Rather Kovacs is downloaded from the stack in his current body (sleeve in the jargon of the novel) and then stored on a hard drive somewhere only to regain consciousness when he is later resleeved (put in a body).
Kovacs finds himself resleeved on a different planet than where his previous sleeve died. He has been let out early to do some detective work for a rich man back on Earth named Laurens Bancroft. Bancroft has his own mind backed up every 48 hours to an offsite location in case someone tries to not only kill his sleeve, but destroy his stack as well to prevent him from being resleeved.
The idea of a self that is continuous over time seems to be more of a presumption than a considered opinion among most people. We perceive ourselves as continuous so we explain away discontinuities or changes. I perceive myself as continuous even if my fingernails change in length or even if I lose a finger, but where does this end? How much can I lose and still be me? Am I then my personality or my memories? A sort of stop gap seems to be the concept of a soul. I am wherever my soul is so even if I lose limbs or my personality changes I am still me, but if I lose all my memories and my personality completely changes and I have a different body can I still be said to be the same individual in any coherent way? Let’s look at some case studies from fiction and projections about where technology may take us.
In Altered Carbon Catholics take a strong stance against the downloading and resleeving process to the point that in the event that their current sleeve dies they have standing orders written up so that no one resleeves them. This has a tendency to make them targets for killers who do not have to worry about someone who they killed testifying against them in court. Instead of a homicide division, the police have an organic damage division.
So if you accept the premises of this novel are the Catholics in the novel right that you are sufficiently connected with your original body that when you are resleeved that it is no longer you? From Kovacs point of view this seems ludicrous, but after having been desleeved and resleeved many times it’s not as if the Catholics would be willing to accept his testimony.
If you do have some sort of immortal soul then where would it reside in such a universe? Would your soul attach itself to wherever the information of your mind is located? What about when one of Kovacs’ adversaries duplicates himself? What happens to the soul of his adversary? Is it also duplicated? Does the soul of his adversary attach to just one instance? Is the other instance left without a soul or get a new soul somehow?
The Catholics would be left with the options of either having the soul remain connected with the original sleeve or perhaps moving on to some sort of afterlife after the first sleeve is destroyed. Kovacs might contend that if there is anything to this soul business that his soul is just the information stored in his stack and transmitted from planet to planet by needlecast.
“The Schizoid Man” in Star Trek: The Next Generation
While the issue of souls in the desleeving and resleeving process might initially seem like a new issue others have approached it before. Consider “The Schizoid Man” (Season 2, episode 6 of Star Trek: The Next Generation. Dr. Ira Graves transfers all of his mind into Lieutenant Commander Data before Graves’ body dies. Through Data’s positronic net Graves is able to live on and *Spoiler alert*
It is only later when Graves’ mind is downloaded to a less sophisticated computer that he loses the emotional character to his memories and experiences. Only then could Graves be said to have lost his “soul.”
Another similar soul-body connection conundrum comes with the concept of quantum teleportation. The Star Trek universe largely ignores this issue by insisting that there is a “matter stream” and that one’s particles actually move from one location to another. Today’s scientists point to a more likely scenario where only the information about an object (or person) is transmitted in order to create a perfect copy in a new location (it gets more complicated when you look into the science behind this). After this process is completed there is the quandry of what to do with the instance in the first location. Should that instance be destroyed in a way that would echo what happen when computers “move” files? If the instance at the first location is not destroyed then which instance can be said to be the “real” instance? Can either of them?
If quantum teleportation is used on a person to “transport” that person to Mars then what does this mean for the soul? Does the soul remain in the first location? Is the soul with which ever instance is “real”? Does the soul move to the second location? Does the soul somehow move as well? Is the soul somehow duplicated along with all other aspects of the person?
From the perspective of the instance of the person on Earth the transport seems to have failed leaving them on Earth. From the perspective of the instance of the person on Mars the transport seems to have succeeded taking them to Mars. Both instances would contend that they are “real”. If the soul is some sort of pointer then we should be able to check where the soul points to find which one is real. Yet, part of the nature of souls seems to be that we cannot detect them. There could be said to be a subjective soul pointing to whichever instance of a person is deemed real, but that’s hardly satisfactory.
While in all of the cases I have mentioned so far there is confusion or uncertainty of the nature of a copy, this need not be the nature of souls. A variation on the Altered Carbon universe could have every attempted resleeving fail. Catholics from that universe could contend the failure was due to human inability to tranfer souls while non-Catholic scientists might point to analog/digital conversion issues or unidirectional nature of such conversions. Non-Catholic scientists could easily speculate that the problems would be overcome one day without that day ever needing to arrive in fact for them to feel certain.
The question seems even easier in “The Schizoid Man.” Data does not have the mind of Dr. Graves successfully transferred into him. There is no resolution about whether it would be possible. As the viewer we could come to the conclusion that it is impossible or just failed in this instance. Again this would not feel like a satisfactory answer.
Finally, with quantum teleportation the problem could have a clearer physical resolution. It could be impossible to duplicate macro objects with quantum teleportation in the way that the state of light packets has been duplicated. You could decide this was due to the nature of souls or that souls were irrelevant to the process.
Creation of a duplicate in a new location through quantum teleportation could inherently destroy the original. This would leave you wondering whether this was because the soul could only be at one location or leave you back at wondering whether the soul was left behind in the first location while the instance in the second location either had a new soul, a duplicate soul, or pehaps no sul at all
While it can be fun to speculate about souls, I find myself wondering whether all of this uncertainty is what makes me find the concept of souls less than useful in the first place. Instead, we can focus where we are clearest that you either are your body or are sufficiently indistinguishable at the present time to make other options irrelevant. I do not harm my body because my body is me. I do not harm your body because your body is you. The detachment that can come from thinking in a manner where the self is beyond bodies seems more harmful than helpful right now. Yet there is no guarantee we will not have to revisit this later whether in our personal or collective future.