The Cartesian idea of the spirit or soul as a disembodied presence merely using or occupying a body, rather than the two being integrally connected, is a cardinal principle in transhumanism, the ultimate goal of which is to transcend the limitations of corporeal existence through technology.

So I wrote in my recent review of the transhumanist fantasy Ghost in the Shell, starring Scarlett Johansson. In the combox a longtime reader who goes by Pachyderminator challenged this: 

Modern transhumanists tend to hold a scientific materialist worldview, which is often concerned specifically to refute Cartesian dualism and replace it with physical reductionism, which holds that any system can in principle be modeled without loss solely with reference to its lowest-level parts.

This is quite true of many (not all) transhumanists — a point I would have noted myself in a piece on transhumanism. Since I didn’t, I thank Pachyderminator for highlighting this point.

This is precisely what makes it so odd that, juxtaposed with this penchant for reductionistic materialism, transhumanist imagination also embraces, at least in its more quasi-religious or existential forms, a Cartesian notion of the self as not bound or defined by the material reality supporting the self — a “ghost” in a “shell,” as the Japanese franchise, unambiguously an expression of transhumanist imagination, proposes. 

The reductionist side of transhumanist thought lies in the notion that the mind, and more fundamentally the “self,” comprises a system that can be fully replicated, thus becoming equivalent to the original system.

The Cartesian side of transhumanist thought lies in the aspirational hope that replicating the mind and “uploading” one’s memories, thought patterns, etc. can preserve one’s identity or self — that the “me” currently residing in my body can be transferred into a completely different form, and this too will be “me,” continuous with the “me” I have always been.

Only last week this fantasy was given imaginative expression in an article on transhumanism in the Guardian:

You are lying on an operating table, fully conscious, but rendered otherwise insensible, otherwise incapable of movement. A humanoid machine appears at your side, bowing to its task with ceremonial formality. With a brisk sequence of motions, the machine removes a large panel of bone from the rear of your cranium, before carefully laying its fingers, fine and delicate as a spider’s legs, on the viscid surface of your brain. You may be experiencing some misgivings about the procedure at this point. Put them aside, if you can.

You’re in pretty deep with this thing; there’s no backing out now. With their high-resolution microscopic receptors, the machine fingers scan the chemical structure of your brain, transferring the data to a powerful computer on the other side of the operating table. They are sinking further into your cerebral matter now, these fingers, scanning deeper and deeper layers of neurons, building a three-dimensional map of their endlessly complex interrelations, all the while creating code to model this activity in the computer’s hardware. As the work proceeds, another mechanical appendage — less delicate, less careful — removes the scanned material to a biological waste container for later disposal. This is material you will no longer be needing.

At some point, you become aware that you are no longer present in your body. You observe – with sadness, or horror, or detached curiosity – the diminishing spasms of that body on the operating table, the last useless convulsions of a discontinued meat.

The animal life is over now. The machine life has begun.

You see how this is imagined to work? The piece posits continuity of consciousness (a first-person experience of self, addressed here in the second person) between “you” that submits to the operation and the “you” that “at some point…become[s] aware” that “you” now exist in another form, leaving behind only “discontinued meat.” Pure Cartesian imagination.

Crucially, bolstering this mental sleight of hand, the scanning and the consciousness of one’s self in the new form is imagined to be simultaneous with a process of destroying what is scanned. If we were to adjust the imaginative scenario so that the scanning process is conceived as non-invasive and non-destructive, you would still have the (imagined) phenomenon of a conscious awareness in a new form — but you would also continue to be conscious and aware in your own body.

This alteration reveals that the consciousness we imagine in the machine is in fact a copy of the consciousness in our minds; if I can continue to exist as me in my own body, side by side with the version of me imagined to be in the computer, then I have not escaped or transcended death at all. In this scenario, I would continue to exist in my body for my natural lifespan and then die like anyone else, and the copy of me in the computer would be like a clone with implanted memories, a new self or consciousness based on me, but not me.

As an aside, Christopher Nolan’s The Prestige explores these implications (in a non-transhumanist cultural context) with his customary ruthlessness. To enjoy Star Trek, on the other hand, we are obliged to ignore the reality that if a viable transporter were ever invented, it wouldn’t really transport a person from one place to another; it would kill the original person and create a copy in another location. (The Next Generation comes perilously close to admitting this in the episode where Commander Riker is inadvertently duplicated in a transporter accident, with one version stranded on a deserted planet for years and another version going on to a successful Starfleet career.)

To be sure, there are hard-headed transhumanists who will admit all this, at least in principle. The frankest will admit that, on their own reductionist principles, the notion of a continuous “self” is an illusion; there is no continuous underlying reality uniting what I call “me” today and what called itself “me” yesterday or will call itself “me” tomorrow. In fact, there is no “I” or “self” at all; selfhood itself is a chimera.

On this model, memory fools us all. I have inherited the memories of past iterations of “me,” which, they say, tricks me into feeling as if or believing that some underlying, continuous reality has had all of these experiences. But this is all unreal. There is no “survival” of the self from death, but then there is no “survival” from day to day either, or even from hour to hour.

So they say. Yet they generally believe, for example, in keeping “their” promises, i.e., promises of which they have inherited memories, though presumably they would not feel bound by promises remembered by what they knew or believed to be false, implanted memories.

Even if they were real promises made by someone else and then copied technologically or telepathically into their minds, they would hold the original promise makers, not themselves, responsible for them. Yet on their own principles it’s not obvious how the inherited memory of a promise transmitted organically differs from one transmitted from one mind to another.

For that matter, it’s not clear how much sense the notion of a “promise” makes at all. A promise creates what we conceive as an obligation for … who? Not for “me,” for by hypothesis “I” don’t exist at all, and certainly “I” won’t exist at the future date when the obligation is held to apply. That will be some other iteration of “me,” with memories of what “I” have done to be sure, but the “me” that made those promises no longer exists, and it’s far from clear why the “me” that inherits those memories should be obliged by them.

If artificially transmitted promises don’t count, then a consciousness into which all my memories and thought patterns had been poured would be no more bound by my promises than a mind that received them via artificial or telepathic means. But that’s another way of saying that the copy of me isn’t really me — at least, as long as they hold that I am bound by my own promises.

At any rate, such hardheaded materialistic reductionism hardly seems to comport with quasi-religious zeal for achieving “immortality” through mind uploading. Yet this zeal for immortality is not only often found among those who theoretically acknowledge the illusionary nature of the self, it seems to be an important motive, perhaps even the motive, driving much of the enthusiasm for the transhumanist project in all its forms, technological, biological, cyborganic, etc.

Like a ghost in a shell, a Cartesian notion of the self as an actual, intangible thing lurking inside the biological machines of our bodies, a valuable presence that can be saved from organic frailty and given digital eternal life, coexists anomalously with a reductionist–materialist view of our cerebral hardware as nothing more than the sum of its parts.

Transhumanists may or may not say out loud that we have no souls, but this doesn’t stop them from hoping for the salvation of their souls in a way fundamentally convergent with believers in conventional religions. The main difference is nature of the deity and the hoped-for eschaton. 

See also
Ghost in the Shell (review)