Uploading Minds to a Computer Need Not Imply Substance Dualism

Estimated read time (minus contemplative pauses): 4 min.

Instruments_of_Human_Sustenance-Humani_Victus_Instrumenta-Cooking-ArcimbaldoI’ve recently stumbled across several dismissals of mind uploading (i.e., the installation of a person’s consciousness onto a computer) on the grounds that it implies substance dualism (i.e., the existence of a soul or disembodied mind or some such, as distinct from a physical body).

Some take this criticism so far as to suggest that transhumanists, Singularitarians, futurists, ideologically neutral AI and/or consciousness researchers, and even just curious-minded folks deeply engaged in contemplation of the prospect’s plausibility and philosophical implications amount to the techno equivalent of those who peddle religion and healing crystals.

I’m mighty skeptical about mind uploading being possible, but I find accusations of dualism misguided. A glance at the Wikipedia entry on mind uploading shows that its proponents seem committed to, and in fact reliant upon, materialism (or physicalism). Computer parts are just as material as brains are, after all. Still, some critics seem to think this commitment at best a matter of philosophical confusion: these techno-frauds just don’t realize they’re dualists (a common accusation these days); and at worst a ruse, perpetrated for whatever reason (again, such characterizations sometimes come with comparisons to snake oil salesmen and other charlatans).

Either way, so claim many critics, those contemplating mind uploading are fundamentally driven by one thing: a deep fear of an oblivion that amounts to the annihilation of their metaphysical essence, or “true self”—which, critics often point out, any educated person knows doesn’t really exist since it can’t be found by an fMRI.1

I won’t address all these criticisms here. Instead, I’ll focus on why I think mind uploading doesn’t require dualism.

“Uploading” need not literally mean the transfer of some floaty essence from a biological body into a computer port. Rather, it may be used as a shortcut to refer to a much more complicated process by which one’s first-person experience, as a continuous “self,” goes from being “housed” in a biological shell to a non-biological one. I’m using scare quotes because, again, these words are shortcuts for talking about things more complicated than we need to get into here. I’m confident you know what I’m getting at.

In a sense, your consciousness is “re-uploaded” over and over again as your body traverses time and goes through changes and replaces cells and so on. This generally happens with a smooth continuity of “self awareness” (what we might call an inner sense of continuous diachronic personal identity). It’s conceivable that the this continuity could proceed even when those changes involve bringing in new body parts that happen to be non-biological.

Imagine a tiny, microscopic part of your brain is replaced with a bit of silicon. You then go on about your business, not noticing any difference in how you experience yourself or the world. Now a little more of your brain is replaced, then a little more. Eventually, you’re all made up of “computer parts.” We could go on with this story, to a point where your experiences are all coming from a computer program (like a brain in a vat), but I’ll leave it at this.

Nowhere in that story did I need to posit anything like a soul. I described a purely materialist or physicalist process, no dualism required. Which is to say that if someone’s going to argue against the possibility of mind uploading, it seems to me they’ll need to do so on some other grounds than its apparent dualist implications.

By the way, this little thought experiment isn’t meant to say anything about whether it’s possible to “house” consciousness on computer chips rather, or about whether dualism is true or false, or about whether transhumanists and their like have, in some particularly cultish and fanatical cases, succumbed to a religion-like ideology whose metaphysical parameters they find either more plausible or at least more controllable than those of “natural” religion.

Nor, finally, am I denying the existence of mind uploading’s many metaphysical problems. Such as: What really counts as “you” anyway? What if you “upload” your mind to two different computers so that two minds now think themselves “you”? Both have your tastes and dispositions and memories, more or less (they need not have all your memories and might have some you don’t have, just as you right now don’t remember everything from your life and are certain to have many false memories). But which is the real “you”? Both? Neither? 2 These difficult problems aren’t much different than those posed by the metaphysics of personal identity we’ve been grappling with for centuries as regular old biological humans.

The only claim I’m making is that you need not presume substance dualism in order to conceive of your mind, or sense of self, transitioning from a locus of the biological body you have now to that of a new body that happens to be non-biological.

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Further Reading


  1. I’m not trying to make a straw man. Rather, for brevity’s sake, I’m aiming to boil down many arguments I’ve seen on the subject.
  2. Derek Parfit explores similar problems related to cloning in his 1984 book Reasons and Persons.

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