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Death and Transfiguration

In a remarkable 2012 IEET blog, “The Praxis,” Dirk Bruere introduced a quasi-religious conception of Transhumanism that not only foresaw the possibility of technological immortality for selfish individuals, but notably suggested that we have the obligation to help each other achieve eternal life, even using advanced technology as best we can to provide salvation to people who have already died:

Know then that the purpose of our fellowship is to seek eternal life and reunion with those who have passed before us. To seek knowledge and perfection of spirit and soul that we may become worthy to resurrect the willing dead and in turn be judged worthy to be resurrected into the worlds beyond. Such powers may lie in our past or in our future. Meanwhile we shall remember those who have passed and we shall speak for them as family so that come the Awakening none will be forgotten. We shall be the calm in the storm, the eye of the hurricane, the refuge in the night, the hope for tomorrow.

In a famous poem about death, Dylan Thomas repeatedly proclaimed: “Do not go gentle into that good night.  Rage, rage against the dying of the light.”  This advice is the opposite of that offered by many religious faiths: Pass peacefully into the better world God has prepared for you.  Yet Thomas himself ceased raging in 1953, and in another poem he quoted St. Paul, saying “death shall have no dominion.” Paul asserted the fundamental principle of Christian belief: “Knowing that Christ being raised from the dead dieth no more; death hath no more dominion over him” (Romans 6:8-10).  Jesus, Paul and Thomas are now as dead as doornails, and to modern Atheists there is no life hereafter.  How, then, can modern doubters deal with death?  Perhaps they can take heart from the fact that the writings of Paul and Thomas have become immortal.

Paul wrote his faith-inspired words in a letter to the Romans, who had already experimented with other responses to death.  Jesus himself said: “Render therefore unto Caesar the things which be Caesar’s, and unto God the things which be God’s” (Luke 20:24-26, cf. Matthew 22:21, Mark 12:17).  By Caesar, he meant Tiberius, as a symbol of the Roman state rather than a living individual person, and caesar came to mean king.  Yet the origin of the term was the name of a specific person, Gaius Julius Caesar, about whom Shakespeare has Mark Anthony say: “The evil that men do lives after them; the good is oft interred with their bones; so let it be with Caesar.”  By the time Octavian renamed himself Caesar Augustus, Caesarism had become the model that defined the Roman state for the next five centuries.  Thus, for better or worse, Julius Caesar became effectively immortal not by submission to a humble faith like Christianity, but through deeds that dominated other people.

It is possible to look into Julius Caesar’s face even today, because the surviving statuary agrees to a significant extent that he had high cheekbones and a receding hairline.  We can read books he wrote in his own words, documenting his thinking processes in the context of political persuasion if not free expression of private feelings.  For example, we can contemplate Caesar’s thoughts about the Druidic doctrine of reincarnation, reading them either in the original “dead language” or in translation: “In primis hoc volunt persuadere, not interire animas, sed ab aliis post mortem transire ad alios, atque hoc maxime ad virtutem excitari putant metu mortis neglecto.” (“The cardinal doctrine which they seek to teach is that souls do not die, but after death pass from one to another; and this belief, as the fear of death is cast aside, they hold to be the greatest incentive to valour.”)  Clearly, his focus was on the military consequences of this belief, not its truth or falsity. As natural language processing and other fields of computer and information science advance, our ability to preserve and translate the thoughts of deceased persons should progress substantially.

Some poems by Dylan Thomas can be heard in his own voice, through recordings, including “A Refusal to Mourn the Death, by Fire, of a Child in London,” which ends: “After the first death, there is no other.” In earlier periods of history, only a very few human beings could be immortalized through their words, yet perhaps today everybody can achieve this form of transcendence.  Much Transhumanist discussion of immortality focuses on biology, whether defeating disease and aging to keep a person alive, or preserving a deceased person’s brain for later scanning or insertion into a new body.  Much of my own effort has been on using standard social science questionnaire methods to preserve medium-fidelity copies of an individual mind, as in my 2014 book, Personality Capture and Emulation.

In recent years I have explored another technology-enabled method, that requires the active effort of a living person to revive, at least approximately, a deceased person.  The idea came very naturally a decade ago when I created my first World of Warcraft avatar as a character based on the ancient Greek philosopher, Aristotle.  When I realized that a priest character would be effective for my research, I created another avatar, Maxrohn, based on my deceased uncle, Max Rohn, who had been an Episcopal priest and missionary.  He features in my 2010 book from MIT Press, The Warcraft Civilization.  Two more recent books in which I explored related ideas were eGods: Faith Versus Fantasy in Computer Gaming and An Information Technology Surrogate for Religion: The Veneration of Deceased Family Members in Online Games.  Two other books that use this approach are currently in press, Star Worlds: Freedom Versus Control in Online Gameworlds and Virtual Sociocultural Convergence in which I brought back to virtual life many deceased social theorists.

As information technology and personality capture advance, much of the work emulating a deceased person can be performed by computers, but we may always want the freedom to experience the personality of a dearly departed, whether by interacting with a robot or virtual-world agent operated by artificial intelligence, or by entering into the personality of the person who has passed away, for example through role-playing in an online gameworld.  Here I will briefly describe two times I emulated my own mother in this way, with the clear suggestion that the reader could have the same experience, role-playing the reader’s own deceased parent, friend, or other loved-one.  Her maiden name was Barbara Sims, and I chose to play her from her early pre-marriage adulthood, because then she wished to become an anthropologist, and thus would have been interested in exploring the two virtual worlds.

As Shakespeare’s drama about Julius Caesar illustrates, if we have a good deal of information about a deceased person, it is possible to role-play being that individual at some level of fidelity.  One of the newest artforms, massively multiplayer online (MMO) role-playing games, provides an excellent theater for doing exactly that.  To explore this possibility further, I shall outline the results of running an avatar based on Barbara Sims, in Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion, a solo-player computer game, and Star Wars: The Old Republic, an MMO.  Barbara Sims is an example of an ancestor veneration avatar (AVA), created not merely to honor a deceased relative but also to learn from temporarily inhabiting her personality, contemplating the real challenges she experienced in life, in the context of a virtual world selected to be an appropriate venue for those purposes.

The real Barbara Sims had a reasonably satisfying life, from birth in 1914 up to an untimely accidental death in 1965.  A turning point came around the age of twenty, when she dropped out of Bryn Mawr college, briefly worked at the American Museum of Natural History, then accepted the roles of housewife and mother, thereby abandoning her plan to become an anthropologist.  During that turbulent period in the late 1930s, she wrote an anthropological textbook surveying the preliterate peoples of the world, which was never published and now no longer exists, while interacting with leading anthropologists such as Margaret Mead.  It is impossible to be sure why she changed course at the threshold of adulthood, although in the depths of the Great Depression her father suffered what he called his own “various vicissitudes,” which led to the loss of their home in Saddle River, New Jersey, and thus may have made completing college financially impossible.  She was an avid reader, and she tended to prefer fantasy novels with both intellectual depth and melancholy tone, such as The Ship of Ishtar by A. Merritt.  As an example of how different technologies may be used for AVAs, I wrote the Wikipedia article about this novel in her name.

As the name implies, The Elder Scrolls IV is the fourth is a popular series of games based in an elaborate fantasy universe, and it received very positive reviews.  In selecting a game for a virtual revival project, popularity or reviewers’ evaluations of quality can be influential factors, but more crucial is the relationship between the mythos of the game and the personality of the person to be memorialized.  In this case, Oblivion is especially appropriate because it allows Barbara Sims to experience a fantasy world like those she loved to read about, and to re-experience the difficult period of too-briefly attending college.  Figure 1 shows her avatar, inspecting the inventory that contains the protective armor and magic potions she had collected to that point in her questing.

Figure 1: Barbara Sims Inspecting her Inventory in The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion

The action takes place in one region of the Elder Scrolls Tamriel continent, centered on a Medieval-style metropolis called Imperial City that possessed the college Barbara wanted to attend, The Arcane University.  She could not simply walk in the door.  Rather, she was required to complete a number of missions for the Mage’s Guild that ran the institution, which in turn required her to have various weapons, armor, and magic potions, obtained by doing more ordinary missions or simply killing computer-simulated beasts and enemies.  A book was located at the university, Spirit of the Daedra, that begins and ends with words spoken by immortals expressing puzzlement about mortals:

We do not die. We do not fear death.

Destroy the Body, and the Animus is cast into The Darkness. But the Animus returns.

But we are not all brave.

We feel pain, and fear it. We feel shame, and fear it. We feel loss, and fear it. We hate the Darkness, and fear it...

Man is mortal, and doomed to death and failure and loss.

This lies beyond our comprehension - why do you not despair?

Another virtual book read by Barbara Sims, titled Manual of Spellcraft, begins with a paragraph that worried her greatly: “The most powerful mages in Tamriel were once beginners. They all had similar early experiences: exposure to magic kindled an interest and/or unlocked some latent ability, followed by years of hard work. These intrepid souls honed their skills, learned new spells, and vigorously trained their minds and bodies to become the formidable figures they were known as during their later lives.”  She wondered if in fact her interest or ability were sufficient for the difficult tasks ahead.  Indeed, after studying many books, the Barbara Sims avatar recapitulated the personal history of the woman she was based on, dropping out of Arcane University, and indeed out of Oblivion.

Thus, role-playing a deceased person in a virtual world can be an opportunity for a living person to consider unresolved conflicts in the departed’s life, from which lessons may be drawn.  Many people drop out of college, only to attend a new college a few years later, either getting back on their original course, or exploring in a new direction.  A dozen years after my mother’s accidental death, the movie Star Wars launched a new mythos that was exceedingly popular despite having a very pessimistic view of life.  In December 2011 the long-lasting MMO, Star Wars Galaxies was destroyed to make room for a new MMO, Star Wars: The Old Republic, which gave Barbara Sims the opportunity to complete her magical education and become a Jedi.  Figure 2 shows her near the end of her training, at the entrance to the ruins of an ancient Jedi temple with a colossal statue, not far from the new Jedi college.  Shortly afterward, she received a lightsaber as her graduation diploma, and boarded a starship to explore the galaxy as a futuristic anthropologist.

Figure 2: Barbara Sims at Jedi Ruins in Star Wars: The Old Republic

Both of the virtual worlds explored by Barbara Sims contain effective magic and exotic religious beliefs, although the Jedi in Star Wars do not recognize any gods.  To the best of my recollection, my mother considered religion to be a prerequisite for living a respectable life, but she was not actually convinced that Christian beliefs were factually true.  If you, dear reader, want to try running an avatar based on a deceased person through a virtual word, you will want to inform yourself about that individual’s beliefs and values, and select a computerized environment that would be suitable for that person’s symbolic revival, as well as convenient for you yourself to operate.  Doing this does not in any way require you to have firm religious beliefs, and you are quite free to be a skeptic or an Atheist if you wish.  Yet ancestor veneration avatars are the Transhumanist equivalent of a religious ritual.

William Sims Bainbridge Ph.D. is an IEET Senior fellow, and a prolific and influential sociologist of religion, science and popular culture. Dr. Bainbridge serves as co-director of Human-Centered Computing at the NSF.

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