The self and the machine: some notes on digital immortality according to Thomas Metzinger

Lidia Zuin
Apr 28, 2017 · 5 min read
Thomas Metzinger

Disclaimer: These are some thoughts and connections I made throughout these past days while reading several different things:

Yesterday I was reading April’s issue of the National Geographic magazine and there was this cover story about post-humanism and cyborgism, How Humans Are Shaping Our Own Evolution, written by D.T. Max. He presents the subject by explaining the evolution of our species and the concepts of natural selection according to Charles Darwin, but since this process is slow and even slower among humans, as our reproduction time span is much longer if compared to other animals that have a shorter gestational period, such as rats. But then the means we found to evolve as species, beyond biology and in a shorter period of time, was through culture and technology — and these are exactly two basic points that will make it possible for us, as a species, to keep evolving and adapting to new environments such as Mars, for instance.

Then I got the recommendation of this article, You Can’t Upload Your “Self” Into Virtual Reality, an interview by Cody Delistraty with German philosopher Thomas Metzinger, who published the paper “Real Virtuality: A Code of Ethical Conduct. Recommendations for Good Scientific Practice and the Consumers of VR-Technology” and the book Being No One in 2003. In this interview, Metzinger answers the question “What’s most unique about the human self as opposed to similar mechanisms in other organisms” by saying: “In humans I think something very special has happened. Our self-models have opened the door from biological evolution into cultural evolution.”

Moreover, Metzinger also indicates that the way we deny death, according to the theory of terror management, was one of our greatest cultural achievements: “The way I have put this is that, as biological beings for millions of years we operate under biological imperatives and almost the highest one is you must not die, under no circumstances.”

“Now, we human beings, we have a problem that no creature before us had. We have this brand new cognitive self-model and we have this insight that you will die — everybody dies — and that creates an enormous conflict in our self-model. Sometimes I call it a chasm or a rift, a deep existential wound that is given to us by this insight — all my emotional deep structure tells me there is something that must never happen, and my self-model tells me it is going to happen.”

As the interview flows, they have a new insight by concluding that it’s our (possibly) unique ability to be aware of our own mortality what constitutes the creation of our self:

“The self becomes a platform for cultural forms of symbolic immortality, the different ways human beings tackle the fear of death. The most primitive and simple, down-to-the-ground way is they become religious, a Catholic Christian, for instance, and say, “It is just not true, I believe in something else,” and form a community and socially reinforce self-deception. That gives you comfort; it makes you healthier; it is good at fighting against other groups of disbelievers. But as we see in the long run, it creates horrible military catastrophes, for instance. There are higher levels, like, for instance, trying to write a book that will survive you.”

This same idea was explored by other theorists such as Sigmund Freud in his essay Thoughts for the Times on War and Death (1915), Edgar Morin in L’Homme et la Mort (1951), Ivan Bystrina in Tópicos de Semiótica da Cultura (1995) and Hans Belting in Bild-Anthropologie (2007), and some of them even suggest that death and the way we acknowledge our own mortality could be the source of culture itself.

Right after that, Metzinger and Delistraty begin to think about virtual reality and the ability to control robots by using brain-machine interfaces, adding more questions about the notion of self and embodiment, something that I was also reading this week, by coincidence, in the book Problems of the Self by Bernard Williams, in which the author brings John Locke’s theory of the self and embodiment to surface. Also, speaking of Locke and suggesting a new essay for a deeper dive into the subject, it would be interesting to find some thoughts that make a comparison between Locke’s work on the self and the liberal roots found in some movements inside the Transhumanist community.

Well, but Metzinger doesn’t seem to believe in the possibility that we may one day be able to upload or transfer our “self” to a machine, since he doesn’t even believe the self exists, even though he uses the word as a reference to the way we interact with the world according to our body senses (Kant?) by matching “sensory perceptions onto motor behavior in a meaningful way.” Thus, if consciousness can only be achieved if there is a body, also because “a large part of the human self-model is grounded in the body, in gut feeling, in inner organ perceptions, in the vestibular sense,” then what is that “thing” that is jumping over into our digital avatar, if it’s not possible to receive a embodied/biological feedback (sense of weight and heaviness, for example) from that?

Scarlett Johansson in Ghost in the Shell (2017)

In spite of criticizing the “uploading freaks” from Singularity University, Metzinger still supposes that it could be possible to achieve a new form of embodiment in virtual reality, though this would possibly have none of our default and current biological characteristics. And so he asks: “Why would we just replicate what biology has created? Maybe we want to create something more interesting or more cool?”

With the recent release of the live action version of Ghost in the Shell, questions about embodiment, consciousness, cyborgism, trashumanism and immortality have been raised both in philosophical and technical terms, also because Elon Musk just announced his new enterprise, Neuralink. You can find here more reads about the religious sides of these themes, CNN’s Mostly Human digital immortality episode and the inspiration on Ghost in the Shell for the idea of creating a ghost in the machine.

Ponto Ômega

Ponto Ômega

Futurismo, ficção científica, tecnologia, cultura e arte.

Lidia Zuin

Written by

Brazilian journalist, MA in Semiotics and PhD candidate in Visual Arts. Head of innovation and futurism at UP Lab. Cyberpunk enthusiast and researcher.

Ponto Ômega

Futurismo, ficção científica, tecnologia, cultura e arte.