Most transhumanists are already familiar with digitalism, even if they haven’t heard the name. Digitalism uses ideas from computer science to develop new ways of thinking about old topics. Writers like Ed Fredkin, Hans Moravec, Frank Tipler, Nick Bostrom, and Ray Kurzweil are digitalists. Typically, digitalists are scientists, rationalists, naturalists, and atheists. Nevertheless, they have worked out novel and deeply meaningful ways of thinking about things like ghosts, souls, gods, resurrection, and reincarnation.
My new book, Your Digital Afterlives, develops and defends several digitalist approaches to life after death. It uses these approaches to life after death to build a comprehensive philosophical framework for the transhumanist vision. It shows how the transhumanist vision has deep philosophical roots, roots which are far more profound than many of its advocates and critics may realize. While many transhumanists correctly focus on the immediate practical aspects of using technology to upgrade humanity, it’s important to see that transhumanism has enormous theoretical power. To reveal this power, Your Digital Afterlives starts with a familiar digitalist approach to life after death.
The first digitalist approach to life after death can be referred to as personality capture. You capture your personality by making digital ghosts, which are computerized representations of your life. Any data that has ever been recorded about you, whether by yourself or someone else, can be entered into your digital ghost. Almost all of us, at least in the technologically advanced societies, are building digital ghosts.
Your Facebook page is an example of a very primitive digital ghost. As technology improves, our digital ghosts will get better. Many science fiction writers, like William Gibson and Rudy Rucker, have talked about digital ghosts. And our civilization contains many possible futures in which our digital ghosts become exact representations of our biological lives.
After you die, your digital ghosts can continue to exist. They can interact with future people, answering questions about your life and your world. When one of your perfect digital ghosts runs on some future super-computer, it will exactly replicate your mental life. Will it be you? Of course not. Your digital ghosts, replayed on computers, merely imitate your life. They are just detailed images, without any freedoms of their own.
But your perfect digital ghosts have your soul. Aristotle said that your soul is the form of your body. Digitalists update Aristotle by saying that your body runs a unique biological program, and that this biological program is your soul. Your digital ghosts run that program too. After you die, if somebody simulates your life by running one of your perfect digital ghosts, then your soul has been reincarnated in that simulation. These computational ways of thinking about souls and reincarnation are entirely natural.
To make a perfect digital ghost, it is probably necessary to scan your brain and body. You step into the scanner, which abstracts all the information contained in your body. It maps your genes, your neural connections, your immunological memories, and all the molecular information-processing circuits in your body. Unfortunately, these high-precision scans are destructive.
Scanning your body kills you. Nevertheless, after you die in the scanner, your digital body-map is used to construct a new software version of your body inside a computer. This is uploading, which is the second type of afterlife discussed in Your Digital Afterlives. Uploading analogous to teleportation. It is a kind of resurrection.
Many people who have written about uploading have worried about personal identity. Are you the same person as your uploaded self? Strangely, to answer that question, these writers always turn to pre-scientific theories of persistence. But Your Digital Afterlives turns instead to new theories of persistence, theories which are more naturalistic. It turns to four-dimensionalism and temporal counterpart theory. Four-dimensionalists reject identity through time: you are a four-dimensional process composed of instantaneous three-dimensional stages. None of these stages are identical with each other. Personal identity is an illusion which digitalism dispels.
You are not the same person that you were five minutes ago. Since there is no personal identity in ordinary life, there is none in uploading either. The Buddhists got it right: there are no permanently enduring substances, all things are ephemeral, and your attachment to an imaginary self-identity can only bring suffering. The uploaded version of you is one of your future counterparts.
After you get uploaded, your new software body will inhabit some virtual world. For the sake of continuity, this virtual world has to closely resemble our earth. But it may be a paradise, an island utopia, like Bacon’s Bensalem. As uploading technologies make progress, these virtual worlds will become indistinguishable from our present world. And if these indistinguishable worlds are possible, it raises an obvious question about our world.
Our world might be a virtual world. Of course, it need not be an imitation or simulation of any other world. It might be an original work of art in its own right, designed and created by some god-like engineers or virtual reality artists. If you are living in a virtual world, then, after you die, your creators might choose to promote you into their own world. So Your Digital Afterlives therefore turns to the study of promotion. Promotion is also a kind of digital resurrection, resembling the resurrection theory of John Hick.
If we are living in a virtual world, designed and created by some artistic engineers, then we can ask many questions about those engineers. Where did they come from? Why do they exist at all? So Your Digital Afterlives turns to the study of these engineers. Any society of world-making engineers looks like a god; but digitalists think of these gods in natural terms.
Digitalists argue that old theologies are mistaken: the classical cosmological and design arguments do not justify the existence of the classical theistic God. On the contrary, they justify the existence of the digital gods, which are enormously complex universe-generating computers. Here Your Digital Afterlives agrees with Richard Dawkins that all complex things are produced by evolutionary processes.
Following Dawkins, Your Digital Afterlives argues for an evolutionary theology. But divine evolution requires divine self-reproduction. Just as some organisms reproduce asexually, so gods reproduce asexually. Gods evolve by means of recursive self-improvement. As gods evolve, they become more powerful, more intelligent, and more benevolent. Less perfect gods beget more perfect gods in a never-ending process. This is radical polytheism: every god surpasses itself in every possible way by making every possible better version of itself.
As gods evolve, they begin to run universes. As these universes grow more complex, they contain increasingly complex things, like human lives. So Your Digital Afterlives turns to the evolution of universes. Cosmological evolution is analogous to technological evolution, and the digital gods are to their offspring as masters to their apprentices.
A master designs and creates some artifact; after making it, she sees all the ways it can be improved. So, as she trains her apprentices, she instructs them to make better versions of her original design. She gives each apprentice the original design along with aspect of the design which needs to be improved. Each apprentice solves its design problem and works out some new and improved version of the original artifact. But the artifacts made by gods are universes. Gods, in order to climb Mount Improbable, run vast optimization algorithms. As gods beget more perfect gods, so those greater gods design and create better universes.
There are always many ways to improve any universe. According to the laws of divine evolution, every universe gets improved in every possible way. Every way to improve any part of a universe is included in some way to improve the whole universe. Since human lives are parts of our universe, every way to improve your life is included in some way to improve our universe.
If our universe is surpassed by every possible better version of itself, then your life will also be surpassed by every possible better version of itself. Better versions of your life inhabit better versions of our universe. After you die, you will live again. According to Your Digital Afterlives, your current earthly life is the root of an infinitely ramified tree of ever better lives. This fourth theory of life after death resembles some Buddhist theories of rebirth. Each of your better lives takes its place in improved version of our society. And rebirth is not restricted to humans. On the contrary, it entails the perpetual progress of all living things – your better lives will inhabit improved versions of our earthly ecosystem, in improved versions of our universe.
All your future better lives are biological processes – they are the lives of ever better human machines. Transhumanists are deeply interested in ways to improve the human body, and Your Digital Afterlives presents a comprehensive and scientifically well-grounded theory of the possible ways that human bodies can be improved. Your Digital Afterlives describes four types of transhuman and then post-human bodies. Every organ of an optimized body is as good at its jobs as any human organ can be. Your optimized bodies are as smart, strong, fast, and healthy as humans can be. Every organ of an idealized body is as good at its jobs as any carbon-based organ can be.
Your idealized bodies are as smart, strong, fast, and healthy as any carbon-based organisms can be. Beyond idealized bodies, there are many generations of extended bodies. The bodies in each next generation are always twice as excellent as those in the previous generation. These bodies have metabolisms that generate twice as much energy twice as efficiently; muscles twice as fast and strong; bones twice as hard to break; eyes that see twice the detail; hands with twice the speed and dexterity; brains with twice the computational power.
The endless doubling of extended bodies leads to the infinite. So the fourth type of superhuman bodies includes all infinite bodies. These bodies are infinitely complex, precise and powerful. An infinite body has infinitely powerful organs – it has eyes with infinite visual acuity; a brain with infinite computational power; hands with infinite dexterity.
Digitalism affirms perpetual self-transcendence. All things, from bacteria through humans to gods, are endlessly self-surpassing. Here digitalism has affinities with certain strands of process theology. But this self-transcendence has no final destination. To justify this self-transcendence, digitalists turn to axiarchism. Axiarchists, such as John Leslie and Nicholas Rescher, argue that nature is ultimately ruled by value. The axiarchic principle states that value exceeds itself: it is self-originating, self-sustaining, and self-accelerating.
Laws like Moore’s Law, or Kurzweil’s Law of Accelerating Returns, are merely local and approximate echoes of this ultimate axiarchic principle. And, through the careful use of axiarchic reasoning, this philosophy of perpetual self-transcendence is naturalistic. Of course, this naturalism is the naturalism of information and computation, not the naturalism of matter and energy. Digitalism, and therefore transhumanism, entails a positive naturalistic eschatology and a positive naturalistic soteriology. It is an optimistic naturalism. It is a vision of ever greater hope, of absolute affirmation.
Eric Steinhart received his BS in Computer Science from the Pennsylvania State University, after which he worked as a software designer for several years. He earned an MA in Philosophy from Boston College and was awarded a PhD in Philosophy from SUNY at Stony Brook. Since then, he has taught in the Philosophy Department at William Paterson University; his books have concerned Nietzsche, the logic of metaphor, mathematics, and life after death.