We stand at the cusp of guaranteeing the survival of fundamental purpose in the universe, reality, and existence by insuring the continuation of consciousness. This is a far grander calling than merely enabling individual life extension. Existential metaphysical purpose is our foremost responsibility as conscious beings, and computer intelligence is the method of achieving it.
One of the most popular reasons to pursue mind uploading (MU) (Wiley 2014) technology is the desire for individual life extension, i.e., to mitigate otherwise inevitable impending biological death. Other reasons, usually considered with lower priority, include enhancing intelligence, expanding the range of human experiences, curing neurological and psychological diseases, or enabling virtual reality with an otherwise biologically unachievable verisimilitude, but in truth, most introductions to the topic emphasize life extension. To a more conservative audience, individual life extension may sound narcissistic and/or dismissive of more prosaic problems, like poverty. Additionally, when poorly presented, the topic can invoke fears of unequal access. While counterarguments can be raised against such concerns, another approach is to offer a different primary reason in the first place. In particular, as arguably worthy as it may be to empower people over their own death, such a goal does not implicitly serve any grander ambition, such as advancing civilization. Weakening the limitations imposed by biology is a reasonable value to be sure, but a complete philosophy of life and of humanity must include more far-reaching aspirations.
Toward that end, this article offers a more monumental reason for why MU is a critical technological advancement: that it is an essential stepping stone not only in establishing humanity's long term survival, but in guaranteeing that humanity, the universe, and even existence, all have a fundamental metaphysical purpose, essentially the cosmological extension of the individual notion of meaning of life.
In physics, the standard model includes the notion of fundamental particles and forces. The term fundamental implies that such particles and forces cannot be reduced to, or explained by, lower causal phenomena. They are essentially axiomatic to physical reality. In metaphysical philosophy, a similar concept is purpose: an independent, first-cause-like, inexplicable motive or reason for being that underlies some entity's existence, say that of a person, a species, the entire universe, or even the abstract notion of reality (the fact that anything exists in the first place). This idea perhaps achieved its widest recognition in Douglas Adams’ Ultimate Question of Life, the Universe, and Everything (Adams 1979), and is captured by deep introspective questions such as "What is my purpose in life?" or "What is the meaning of life?". This article proposes that we can define at least a partial form of fundamental metaphysical purpose, and then further prescribes certain priorities stemming from that purpose, namely developing computerized intelligence (CI), either in the form of MU, or artificial intelligence (AI), or augmented intelligence (AugI) (in which the brain benefits from neuro-computational prostheses).
Style of the Argument
The argument is presented as an enumerated series of concise statements. It is, in essence, a theorem. I concede that such mathematical terminology is a stretched analogy, but from the perspective of philosophy we can rightly adopt some of this terminology so long as we bear in mind where the differences lie. Much of the argument proceeds from a small set of initial claims, analogous to axioms. Whether these claims are true metaphysical axioms or rather lie closer to conjectures or theorems is not too important so long as we admit that a deeper discussion might illuminate each initial claim.
Later steps of the argument follow from these initial claims, and in that way loosely resemble lemmas or intermediate theorems. The argument culminates in two conclusions, one that prescribes humanity's responsibility in the cosmos, and one following from that responsibility emphasizing the importance of developing CI toward such goals.
The argument is also summarized in the included figure. Each step of the argument is represented by a box. Where one step derives, draws support, or logically follows from another, the relation is depicted with an arrow.
Here is the simplest presentation of the entire chain of reasoning. It is essentially synonymous with the included figure.
- Consciousness is the only phenomenon that grants or supports metaphysical purpose
- Most intelligent species develop mind uploading and artificial intelligence early in their technological evolution
- From §2: Most intelligent species develop mind uploading and artificial intelligence before interstellar travel
- Interstellar travel is incredibly difficult in biological form
- From §3, §4: Computerization of minds significantly simplifies interstellar travel
- From §3, §5: Biological interstellar travel is economically irreconcilable in the face of an alternative computerized option
- From §2, §5: The most likely solution to the Fermi Paradox is that technological species are extremely rare
- From §7: We are all but alone in the galaxy
- From §1, §8: Humanity is responsible for consciousness, and by extension for purpose, in our galaxy
- From §9: Avoiding human extinction is even more important than might be commonly acknowledged
- Single-planet species face serious extinction risks
- From §11: Even single-solar-system species still face unacceptable extinction risks
- From §11, §12: We must spread out on interstellar scales to alleviate the single point of failure aspect of extinction risks
- From §5, §6, §10, §13: We must develop computerized intelligence to enable interstellar colonization to avoid extinction to preserve metaphysical purpose
- From §1, §14: Developing computerized intelligence is amongst the most important goals of our civilization
Argument with Brief Explanations
1.Consciousness is the only phenomenon that grants or supports metaphysical purpose
I propose that it is axiomatic that consciousness is essentially the only phenomenon that can grant metaphysical purpose. Without consciousness, purpose can't exist or occur. Physical events may transpire but by failing to achieve consciousness, there is no fundamental purpose to any of it. Others have made similar claims, such as when Camus wrote “For everything begins with consciousness and nothing is worth anything except through it.”(Camus 1961)
Metaphysical purpose can apply to subjects at various scales. It may apply to individual people (consciousness gives a person genuine purpose in a way that an unconscious entity can never possess). Purpose may apply to civilizations or species (a society's or a species' purpose arises from the conscious experiences of its members, or those of external individuals whom its actions affect). It may apply to local regions (nations, planets, solar systems, galaxies, or galaxy clusters), or to the entire physical universe. Finally, consciousness can grant purpose to the bare notion of physical existence (the fact that reality exists at all). In this last case, do not confuse purpose with explanation. Physics and cosmology (to say nothing of religion) have long sought explanations for why and how the universe or spatiotemporal reality exist (Hawking & Mlodinow 2010, Krauss 2012), but that is a separate topic from the question of what it’s all for, i.e., its purpose, if any.
To be clear, the various entities listed above which are larger than an individual arent necessarily conscious themselves. Rather, the presence of conscious beings who either make up those larger entities, or who experience the causal effects of those entities, bestow purpose to these larger entities as well, specifically through their conscious experiences. In this way, we may speak of a civilization's or a galaxy's purpose in so far as such purpose derives from the experiences of its members or the recipients of its members' actions.
2.Most intelligent species develop mind uploading and artificial intelligence early in their technological evolution
Virtually all intelligent species probably develop CI (any of MU, AI, or AugI) quickly relative to cosmological and evolutionary timescales. For example, assuming the dawn of agriculture reasonably demarcates humanity's dawn of intelligence, then it appears that we will likely achieve CI within a few millennia from that starting point, a cosmological and evolutionary blink of an eye.
It is admittedly difficult to prove that most intelligent species will develop in a similar way since we have only our own history to inform on the matter. However, it is reasonable to apply a mediocrity principle: humanity should not represent a special case of the progression of intelligence—once intelligence has arisen in the first place! The caveat admits that humanity has already violated mediocrity amongst the pantheon of Earthly species (personally, this is where I sink the Drake Equation ala the Fermi Paradox, but that's just my opinion (Wiley 2011a)), but from the set of hypothetical species that do reach the intelligence threshold, we should not unreasonably expect humanity to be special in any further way. Nonmediocrity suggests that once intelligent species arrive and begin to apply their intelligence in cultural and technological ways, they are only a few thousand years away from full CI.
3.Most intelligent species develop mind uploading and artificial intelligence before interstellar travel
Not only does §2 claim early development of CI, but I have further proposed in another article that most species probably develop CI before developing interstellar travel (Wiley:2011a). Bradbury, Cirkovic, Dvorsky, Shostak, Dick, Davies, Rees, and Schneider have all expressed similar ideas, namely that most intelligent species will transition from biological to computerized and robotic form before venturing into the galaxy (Bradbury et al. 2011, Davies 2010, Dick 2006, Rees 2015, Schneider 2015 (forthcoming), Shostak 2009).
4.Interstellar travel is incredibly difficult in biological form
Speculative proposals for biological interstellar travel are difficult to rationalize. They generally take one of three forms: embryonic or genetic seeds, generation ships, and suspended animation (Crowl et al. 2012, Griggs 2014, Hein et al. 2012). The first option barely maintains our own civilization in the first place. New-born humans, raised by nanny-like AI and robotics, will lack a direct, self-experiential connection to their progenitor civilization. This approach would preserve out species but less so our civilization, which is arguably more important in establishing our purpose. Besides, the AI that would raise such new-borns would likely require a human level of intelligence to accomplish its parental tasks, which leads directly back to §3 (AI must precede embryonic or genetic seed interstellar travel, thus undermining the motive for such a venture ala §6 below).
The second option, generation ships, is not realistically practical. Despite being a popular science fiction trope, both the technical and the psychological challenges are virtually insurmountable. At best, this method would still arrive after the other two solutions since it is the most technically challenging. Will we really forego embryonic seeds and/or suspended animation while we wait for generation-ship technology to mature?
The third option, suspended animation, offers the best mixture of the other two. It would maintain a direct member-associated, cultural connection to the home-world's civilization while at the same time would simplify both the technical and psychological mission requirements. However, §5 below, undermines any point in pursuing biological interstellar travel anyway. Please see my other articles in which I have expanded on these issues in greater detail (Wiley 2011a, Wiley 2011b).
5.Computerization of minds significantly simplifies interstellar travel
Assuming §3, and §4, then once a species' minds and bodies become computerized and robotified (or once they develop AI), space travel becomes much easier than it would be in biological form. In computerized and robotic form, galactic colonization should be completed in a few million years (Hart 1975, Jones 1981, Kurzweil 2005, Tipler 1980, Wiley 2011a).
While AI may not be a meaningful replacement for biological interstellar travel since it doesn't preserve personal identity, this reasoning does not apply to MU or AugI (Wiley 2014). Of the two, only MU mitigates the challenges of biological space travel. MU and AI have the advantage of fully computerized space travel, and MU and AugI have the advantage of preserving human-like cognition and even personal identity, but only MU offers both advantages. For a more detailed consideration of these issues, please see (Wiley 2011b) and (Wiley 2011a).
6.Biological interstellar travel is economically irreconcilable in the face of an alternative computerized option
From §3 and §5 I conclude that even if biological interstellar travel is technically feasible, there is still no point in pursuing it since computerized interstellar travel is significantly easier and will likely be available sooner than interstellar travel.
7.The most likely solution to the Fermi Paradox is that technological species are extremely rare
§2 and §5 combine into a serious challenge to the Fermi Paradox, the conundrum that we don't see pervasive signs of intelligent life elsewhere in the cosmos, including in our own galaxy, much less in our own solar system. Quite simply, they should have already arrived here, in our very own solar system. In fact, such arrivals should have occurred numerous times over the millennia and should be continually occurring on a regular basis. Many responses to the paradox attempt to salvage extraterrestrial intelligence, while others agree with the conclusion of a scarce distribution of intelligence. I cannot possibly give the field sufficient coverage here, but I offer an expanded discussion in the longer version of this article, and furthermore, I have written a comprehensive paper that explains my views on the matter. I ask any reader who is instinctively resistant to the conclusion of scarcity to read my thoughts in their full presentation (Wiley 2011a).
8.We are all but alone in the galaxy
From §7 I conclude: that humanity represents a staggeringly rare occurrence of intelligence. We may be one of the only intelligent species in our galaxy, counter to far more popular estimates that intelligence is common and widespread. I am not alone in this conclusion, as others (Hart, Tipler, Paul, Cox, Kurzweil, Webb, Crawford, and Ward) have reached similar conclusions for similar reasons (Crawford 2000, Hart 1975, Kurzweil 2005, Paul & Cox 1996, Tipler 1980, Ward & Brownlee 2000, Webb 2002).
9.Humanity is responsible for consciousness, and by extension for purpose, in our galaxy
From §1 and §8 I conclude: that humans may be almost exclusively responsible for consciousness and metaphysical purpose in our corner of the cosmos, namely our galaxy or local group.
10.Avoiding human extinction is even more important than might be commonly acknowledged
From §9 I conclude: that it is therefore crucial that we neither go extinct nor whither into some perpetually unrecoverable state (Bostrom has considered how various forms of dilapidation might compare or contrast with full extinction (Bostrom 2002)). We must not only survive, but we must grow such that our purpose is realized to an ever-greater extent over the expanse and timeline of the universe.
It could be argued that such reasoning is unnecessary. After all, we have a strong motivation to avoid extinction for reasons of our own selfish desires (perfectly good selfish desires I wholly admit). But the realization expressed in §9 vastly increases our cosmic responsibility. We owe it not only to ourselves, but to the entire universe, to insure that Earth's legacy (and by extension the universe) maintain consciousness so as to maintain purpose. Maintaining grand fundamental purpose is the highest priority of the universe and of existence, and the only way to do that is to maintain consciousness, i.e., to avoid extinction.
11.Single-planet species face serious extinction risks
We face numerous existential risks while we remain confined to a single planet. Hawking, Musk, Sagan, Griffin, Tipler, Tyson, Roddenberry, Zubrin, and Davies have all emphasized the importance of spreading human civilization beyond Earth (the most commonly recommended site being Mars) to protect against localized single-planet extinction risks (Andersen 2014, Davies 2004, NASA's 2005, Roddenberry 1981, Sagan 1994, Shiga 2008, Tipler 1993, Tyson 1994, Zubrin 2000). Likewise, the presence of organizations such as the Centre for the Study of Existential Risk at Cambridge, the Future of Humanity Institute at Oxford, and the Lifeboat Foundation illustrate that this is a problem some people take seriously. Admittedly, some of these groups focus on whether the development of AI is itself the biggest risk. I address such concerns at some length in the longer version of this article.
12.Even single-solar-system species still face unacceptable extinction risks
Some of the risks indicated in §11 are only partially mitigated by spreading to nearby locales, like Mars (or anywhere in our solar system). Some natural risks are broad enough to strike the solar system all at once, such as galactic ray bursts and coronal mass ejections, although they are admittedly extremely unlikely. Nevertheless, a two-planet civilization would be fairly resilient to most practical natural risks. However, a much greater concern is anthropogenic risks. An Earth-Mars civilization would be only slightly more protected against such hazards than an Earth-only civilization. Self-destructive ideas easily spread memetically between societies that maintain regular contact and/or travel. One example is stultifying or openly self-harmful religious ideologies. Another example is various forms of socio-political strife, in which factions on various sides of a disagreement may be spread throughout the solar system such that a large conflict could encompass the entire system.
13.We must spread out on interstellar scales to alleviate the single point of failure aspect of extinction risks
From §11 and §12 I conclude: that we must spread beyond the solar system, namely we must embark on interstellar colonization to set up relatively isolated interstellar societies. The more such colonies we establish, and the further they are spread throughout the galaxy, the better will be our protection against extinction over cosmological timescales.
14.We must develop computerized intelligence to enable interstellar colonization to avoid extinction to preserve metaphysical purpose
From §5, §6, §10, and §13 I ultimately conclude: that we must therefore pursue CI, so as to facilitate interstellar travel, in order to protect against extinction, thereby guaranteeing that humanity (or consciousness in general) survives in the galaxy and grants the galaxy conscious metaphysical purpose, specifically purpose of the sort that a galaxy lacking conscious beings could never express.
15.Developing computerized intelligence is amongst the most important goals of our civilization
From §1 and §14 I conclude: that developing CI is the one of the highest priorities of our civilization.
Developing the technologies of CI (especially MU) is nearly the most important goal of our civilization. Notably, this line of reasoning makes no mention of the more common and unrelated reason for pursuing MU, that of extending individual lifespans. While that may be a worthy goal as well, it is a personal goal, not a grand universal goal. I am concerned with insuring that the universe, reality, and existence preserve fundamental purpose. This goal is met by maintaining consciousness in the form of conscious beings who escape extinction and maximize their conscious experiences. I am further concerned with insuring that humanity retains its share of that purpose by preserving our species against extinction. The alternatives, that the universe and existence could lose ultimate purpose at a needlessly early cosmic hour, or that humanity might fade into obscurity, are too horrible to bare and cannot be allowed to transpire.
Earlier in Earth's history there was no consciousness on our planet of the sort we are considering here. A transition occurred with the arrival of human consciousness, but while humans have been around for millennia, it was only in the last century that we gained a sufficient understanding of cosmology to properly comprehend the potential for spreading out over cosmic distances. Our single point of failure remains steadfast despite our cultural and technological ascent. However, we are now approaching that incredible historical juncture when interstellar travel will become technically feasible and we could therefore actually do something about it. Far in the future, assuming we survive, the risk of extinction and the vanishment of consciousness will have been alleviated by spreading over vast cosmic expanses. Right now, we exist during the intermediate era, when Earthly consciousness exists, but tenuously so. The highest priority of our era is solving the single point of failure problem, since that goal determines the fate of all future epochs of human history, namely whether there will even be any such future.
We stand at the cusp of guaranteeing the survival of fundamental purpose in the universe, reality, and existence by insuring the continuation of consciousness. This is a far grander calling than merely enabling individual life extension. Existential metaphysical purpose is our foremost responsibility as conscious beings, and CI is the method of achieving it.
This article is a notably shortened version of a similar article currently wending its way through the peer-review process. The longer version goes into considerably greater depth in its presentation of this topic and is therefore better capable of defending the central argument. I ask that any critical response be aimed at the longer version, even though it will not be publicly available for several months at the earliest. Please don’t hesitate to email me for a personal copy.
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Dr. Keith B. Wiley is a researcher with experience across numerous fields within computer science. He has been involved in the ongoing discussion of philosophical and practical aspects of mind uploading for twenty years. His first book on the subject, A Taxonomy and Metaphysics of Mind-Uploading, was released in 2014 with support from Humanity+ Press. Dr. Wiley’s articles and papers are available at http://keithwiley.com.